When COVID-19 hit, global health organizations worldwide were forced to respond as quickly as possible, in the most meaningful ways they could, despite knowing little about the virus and the devastating impact it would have in the months ahead.
But having dedicated its mission to delivering emergency medical services to people affected by conflict, disaster, and disease, International Medical Corps was ready to find ways to help.
The global nonprofit's main mission is to improve quality of life for underserved communities around the world. More than that, the organization works to provide services like training to the communities where they work, ultimately strengthening them and leading the people they train to become their own independent first responders.
Global Citizen spoke to International Medical Corps CEO Nancy Aossey about how the organization is delivering its services amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Global Citizen: International Medical Corps works to help people affected by war, natural disaster, and disease through health care services. How has it had to respond to COVID-19?
Nancy Aossey: International Medical Corps has more than 35 years of experience battling infectious and other diseases — including SARS, MERS, H1N1, flu, and Ebola — in 80 countries. We brought this experience to bear when deploying a comprehensive operational response in cities across the United States and within our existing global programs in 30 countries.
This has included procuring millions of items of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other medical equipment and supplies for operations around the world to keep frontline health workers and community members safe; installing emergency medical field units that expand capacity in hospitals in the hardest-hit and underserved areas in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Puerto Rico; mobilizing teams of clinicians to treat patients on the front lines; and training health care workers and other first responders worldwide — including at nursing homes, long-term care facilities, and camps for refugees and internally displaced persons — on proper infection prevention and control (IPC).
We’re providing hygiene supplies to slow transmission of the virus, as well as a range of services and supplies to respond to the unique needs created by the virus — this could include things like PPE, medical treatment, mental health support, and campaigns to battle misinformation.
Outside an infectious disease unit in Juba, South Sudan
What has been the biggest challenge for your teams over the last few months specifically responding to COVID-19?
Health and safety are always paramount. With PPE in short supply, keeping health worker teams properly outfitted required constant attention. Our logistics and procurement teams had to find and distribute increased amounts of PPE during a time when supplies were extremely tight, while our medical teams throughout the world worked to ensure that proper procedures were followed. In the early days of the pandemic, little was known about the virus, nor was testing widely available, so we worked hard to reduce interaction and risk among care providers and the people we were helping, both in the US and abroad. The availability of PPE continues to be a challenge, as does ready access to large quantities of tests, the quality and accuracy of tests, and the ability to identify cases.
Travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders put in place to combat the pandemic also have challenged our teams who are providing a range of services — including nutrition, vaccination programs, protection from and treatment of gender-based violence, and mental health support, to name a few — to people in need around the world. In response, we have continued to innovate, using the internet, mass/social media, and phone networks to communicate with at-risk groups; stepping up our support for community-based volunteers; prepositioning supplies for treating acute malnutrition; and increasing the scope and reach of our training programs to new audiences.
A hand-washing station outside a health facility in Yemen
What has been the most important thing your teams have observed as an organization on the front lines of COVID-19? How has the crisis evolved?
Many lessons we’ve learned battling infectious diseases over the years apply to the COVID-19 pandemic. A few key lessons of note, as part of our US response:
It’s important for hospitals to be prepared and to make tough decisions. For example, the hospitals that suspended routine services early on, while refocusing and redirecting their efforts on COVID-19, did much better than hospitals that continued to try to do everything for everybody.
It’s important to screen patients before they enter the hospital, to ensure that COVID and non-COVID patients don’t mingle and that those with minor illness can be quickly treated and sent home.
The best way to expand health services to meet rapidly expanding needs is by providing hospitals with the tools to quickly increase their capacity — rather than trying to build new infrastructure. For example, equipping convention centers as patient depots or minimal care sites only draws critical resources away from the hospital community, and can undermine their efforts.
Clear guidance is key to public health. There needs to be a trusted agent imparting information to affected populations to reduce confusion and doubt about the illness.
Inside a hospital in New York City
Has there been anything positive to come out of the pandemic response — new connections made, for example, or the implementation of a system that could work to deliver services post-COVID-19 that was developed over the last few months?
International Medical Corps has deepened its affiliation with hospital-based critical care medicine across the US, and been able to share its deep expertise in epidemic control. We have continued to manage large groups of providers in 30 countries — including in places like Yemen, Syria, Nigeria, and South Sudan, where health infrastructure is weak. We have new partners, throughout the US and worldwide, who have joined us in a response against a common enemy.
This pandemic response has validated our time-tested approach of plugging into and strengthening existing systems and infrastructure, rather than building new or parallel systems. And due to the travel restrictions nationally and internationally, we’ve had to find new and innovative ways to reach those in need.
An International Medical Corps worker in a medical centrer in Flushing, New York
What’s the most inspiring thing the organization has seen during the pandemic?
We are continually inspired by the courage and resilience of the health care community, and its ability to find groundbreaking ways to address COVID-19 when facilities were full, staff were ill, and no end was in sight. The communities and frontline responders never gave up. None of the hospitals or other providers that we worked with closed or interrupted service. They just kept going, day after day, night after night.
What can Global Citizens to do help International Medical Corps respond to COVID-19?
Work like ours requires funding, so donations of any size are always needed and deeply appreciated. It’s also critical that the public stay informed, so we encourage people to follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, or check our website’s COVID-19 Resource Center, to get the latest information on the pandemic and ways they can stay safe.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.