It is undeniable that the novel coronavirus is imposing unprecedented health, nutrition, social, and economic disruptions on the global population. In efforts to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, many governments put in place severe measures, which extended to the complete shutdown of public and private services in the hopes of halting the spread of the disease. Although the lockdown approach has the greatest potential for significantly minimizing the spread of COVID-19, the negative economic, health, and social repercussions can be severe when implemented for an extended period of time. Many countries have begun to move to staged reopening plans that incorporate measures of social distancing, wearing facemasks and other PPE, and encouraging frequent handwashing and sanitization. While global cases continue to rise, and while each country’s policies and approach to combating COVID-19 varies, it seems clear that many of the social distancing protocols will stay in place for the foreseeable future.
While many aspects of work and life have become more difficult since the onset of the pandemic, alternative solutions continue to spring up, especially in taking advantage of various technologies that offer new ways of doing things remotely: students are able to continue their education through e-learning, physicians see their patients virtually, and many employees can work from home. While this is mostly true for developed countries, developing countries like Ethiopia are also able to reap some of the benefit from the use of virtual platforms. While the implementation of nutrition programming does not fully lend itself to virtual approaches, especially in rural areas where there is limited access to virtual tools, programs are still finding ways to embrace technology and keep staff, partners and beneficiaries safe.
Growth through Nutrition, a five-year, USAID-funded multisectoral nutrition project has been a forerunner in using online collaboration platforms for facilitating the day-to-day work of employees. These platforms were already being used in the pre-COVID period for collaboration among a large, geographically dispersed team in order to hold meetings, facilitate formal and informal communication, and conduct audio and video conferences, which helped in making the transition to virtual systems easier during COVID. With support from Tufts University, one of the project implementing partners, trainings and technical assistance provided to project staff laid the foundation for more fully embracing a virtual system. In fact, the project was recently able to successfully complete the two-and-a-half-day annual review and planning meeting entirely virtually. One of the benefits of hosting the meeting virtually was the ability to accommodate local and international participants without the travel, costs, and burdensome logistics of an in-person meeting. Although a few participants were unable to fully take part due to intermittent internet connectivity, the majority of staff and partners were able to participate without potentially exposing themselves or others to the virus. Of course, there are tradeoffs in using a virtual system for meetings, such as a lack of personal interaction or less participation accountability, but in many ways, the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.
In addition to virtual internal project meetings, Growth through Nutrition has also joined the growing number of organizations who are increasing their outreach by hosting online webinars to share project learning. In addition to collaboration and participation in events hosted by other organizations, the project hosted its first webinar at the end of September 2020 on Implications of COVID-19 on Nutrition.
Another way that Tufts and the project is using virtual platforms to safely continue activities is for operational research. Tufts designed and implemented a research study utilizing virtual data collection on “Assessing the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on key health and nutrition service and agricultural activities in Growth through Nutrition-supported Ethiopian woredas during March-July 2020.” This is another example of the successful use of virtual platforms for conducting research and collecting data without going out into the field and potentially exposing data collectors and local frontline workers to the coronavirus.
Overall, despite the many challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, it has also created some positive things, one of which is that it has challenged the value of physical space or in-person presence and in doing so, has created an opportunity to be more inclusive at a lesser cost, in addition to keeping people safer. Whether or not the world continues to adopt a more virtual lifestyle post-COVID is something we are unable to answer at this time. Virtual platforms will need to be properly assessed and evaluated by weighing the benefits and tradeoffs of their use by different sectors and organizations. But one thing that is unarguable is that the world is becoming more virtual, and the investment in building IT infrastructure is of paramount importance for greater inclusion and the optimal use of virtual platforms, especially for developing countries. As the strength of and access to virtual connectivity continue to expand, we may also continue to see the benefits of greater collaboration, virtual and otherwise.
Rahel Gizaw is the Sr. Learning Advisor for the Tufts Growth through Nutrition Activity
Meghan Kershaw is the Sr. Program Manager for the Tufts Growth through Nutrition Activity