New Operational Research Uses Virtual Platforms to Collect Survey Data During COVID-19 Pandemic

A health post in North Gondar, Amhara Region

Despite an early implementation of strict prevention measures, COVID-19 continues to spread in various parts of Ethiopia. While the current battle to keep the rate of infection low continues, this is not a guarantee of immunity either from the virus nor its impact on the economic, social, political, and cultural dynamics of the population.

Beyond the health challenges of the pandemic, the strict prevention measures have also brought about abrupt changes to the way we are able to conduct normal work activities including research. As much as the need for scientific evidence is crucial for strengthening the response to the pandemic, the process of data collection must also neither put the participants nor the research team at risk of infection, which is difficult to avoid in traditional ways of collecting data through face-to-face interactions.

The Feed the Future Ethiopia Growth through Nutrition Activity has been supporting primary health care units (PHCUs) in Ethiopia to enhance effective coverage and quality of nutrition-specific services and material, livelihood and financial support to improve agricultural activities in Amhara, Oromia, Tigray and SNNPR regions since even before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Since the beginning of the pandemic and the strict prevention measures were put in place, there has been a need to understand how the PHCUs had been affected both in terms of how the level of need from the community and the ability to provide basic health services have changed in order to better inform the project’s ability to provide relevant and meaningful support.

To address this need, Tufts University, an implementing partner of Growth through Nutrition responsible for leading the research and learning component of the project, has recently conducted an operational research study to assess the impact and mitigation strategies of COVID-19 pandemic on key health and nutrition services at PHCUs and some agricultural activities in Growth through Nutrition-supported woredas between March and July, 2020. Unlike previous research activities where interviews were conducted by going out to the field for in-person data collection, the research team was able to design and implement a study using phone interviews with relevant individuals at the respective PHCUs and woreda agriculture offices to collect data. Key informant interviews were conducted via phone with Health Center and Agriculture Office Heads and routine health service data on key maternal and child health and nutrition indicators were collected from health centers and health posts. Agricultural activities considered to be affected by the pandemic were also assessed. Various strategies put in place to mitigate the impact of the pandemic were also documented in the data collection which was recently completed.

Often, challenges during project implementation require flexible and innovating approaches to achieve project goals. Since face-to-face research posed an unnecessary risk of exposure, the research team was able to design a study that would collect valuable and timely information while minimizing risk to all involved. The evidence generated through this study will help document the impact of the COVID 19 pandemic on the use and provision of health, nutrition and agricultural services in Growth through Nutrition supported woredas, helping to identify areas of need and successful mitigation strategies which will inform program adaptation and response and help design effective support strategies.

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