On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Communities closed their doors, strapped on masks, and distanced themselves from friends and family. Most people believed these protocols would last for only a few weeks, but two years later the impact remains: with more than six million deaths, the toll is among the worst outbreaks in history. The toll extends beyond lives lost, with impacts on education, livelihoods, and mental, physical and social health that will only be understood years from now.
While the stats are devastating, there has been progress, including the fact that vaccines were developed in record time. Roughly 63% of the world population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, totaling nearly 11 billion doses administered globally.
It’s not good news for everyone though. The pandemic exposed many inequities, including those that fuel the disproportionate burden of poor health on communities of color and the world’s poorest people. For example, fewer than 14% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose.
In marking the second anniversary of the pandemic, we honor the lives lost, celebrate the victories and remain committed to addressing the inequities exposed and exacerbated in the last two years.
A Year of Rapid Response
The momentous impact of this crisis placed a spotlight on the global health field and the necessity of epidemiologists, other health experts and public health organizations. When global health challenges arise, organizations like The Task Force step up to respond and protect people from current and future outbreaks.
Even before the pandemic began, The Task Force’s Training Programs in Epidemiology and Public Health Interventions Network helped more than 100 countries prepare for outbreaks such as COVID-19 by training over 20,000 field epidemiologists.
At the start of the pandemic, The Task Force’s MedSurplus Alliance and our partners immediately responded by coordinating the distribution of more than 9 million items of donated PPE (personal protective equipment) to health facilities. As home to the world’s foremost vaccine safety collaborative we worked with vaccine developers to provide safety guidelines as vaccines were developed in record time.
To strengthen information systems’ surveillance capacity, The Task Force’s Public Health Informatics Institute facilitated development of digital contact tracing tools through a forum of public health and technology experts. And we helped public health programs and campaigns transition processes and collect data on providing routine health services in a COVID-19 world.
A Needle Point Breakthrough
Once the first COVID-19 vaccines were approved at the end of 2020, The Task Force’s work turned to ensuring that people everywhere had access. The Task Force’s COVID-19 Vaccine Implementation Program (CoVIP) has worked to ensure that low- and middle-income countries are able to deploy, effectively use, and evaluate COVID-19 vaccines. CoVIP helped 37 countries increase the percentage of target groups vaccinated from an average of 3% to 24% in the last year.
“We bring the vaccines to our communities by boats, motorbikes, and even on foot when the roads are not passable by vehicle, and when you have a vaccine that relies on remaining cold in a region near the equator, you have to plan very strategically about how many vaccines to take for the day’s vaccination campaign so that no vaccines would be wasted,” said Jacqueline Osido, a Kenyan public health nurse manager and immunization logistician supported by CoVIP.
Osido manages a team that vaccinated 8,482 people in her county between May and October 2021, but she emphasized that the need is still immense in communities like hers and others awaiting vaccines.
Talking the Talk
Vaccination efforts go beyond just access. Open dialogues and providing information are another key facet of our work. The Task Force’s Voices for Vaccines (VFV), a parent-led initiative supported by scientists, doctors and public health officials, has tackled vaccine misinformation and hesitancy by providing people, especially parents, with clear, science-based information about vaccines and vaccine-preventable diseases such as CoVID-19.
“The obvious goal might be to get someone to get their vaccine, but a different and more realistic goal might simply be for a hesitant person to understand why others have opted to get vaccinated, even if they themselves are still hesitant,” said Voices for Vaccines Director Karen Ernst.
The Task Force’s Focus Area for Compassion and Ethics (FACE) has nurtured conversation around ethical dilemmas caused by the pandemic including health worker burnout and moral distress and structural inequities in health systems. In partnership with the WHO’s Global Learning Laboratory, FACE hosts a Global Health Compassion Rounds webinar series, bringing together compassion, health and spiritual experts to discuss topics like compassion in CoVID-19.
On the two year-anniversary of this life-altering pandemic, while many questions still remain, one thing is clear: while we tackle COVID-19 and other diseases and address the underlying inequities that have caused women, people of color and the world’s poorest people to bear a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s burden, we must continue to invest in and strengthen health systems to save lives now and in the future.
Header photo: As part of the Central Asia Field epidemiology training program, laboratory samples collections were organized in medical universities from February-March, 2021 for the first stage of the Sero-epidemiological study of the SARS-CoV-2 among students and faculty of medical universities in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Photo courtesy of Ulyana Kirpicheva, Central Asian FETP.