CEO Blog: What it takes to track COVID-19 outbreaks on our teams

We say it time and time again: People are at the heart of everything we do.

Often that means the people we serve. In Afghanistan, for example, my colleagues work with mothers like Lalma, teaching them how to use special measuring tapes that can determine if their children are malnourished and if they are in need of treatment from Medair’s nutrition team. My colleagues in Lebanon recently helped repair Saad‘s home, which was badly damaged in the devastating Beirut explosion in August 2020. His home no longer has broken windows that allow the winter rains in, and a handrail in the stairwell allows him to get to and from his apartment with his poorly leg.

But it also means our own staff. When the pandemic was declared, our way of programming changed overnight. We had to figure out how to continue delivering essential services in the middle of national lockdowns, and how to share information about handwashing and social distancing in communities with limited internet or mobile phone services. Most importantly, we had to figure out how to keep our staff safe, as across the world health staff are at high risk and are essential for responding to the pandemic. If we can keep our staff safe, we can limit the spread of the virus to vulnerable communities while continuing to deliver essential services to those feeling the effects of the pandemic the most.

Kimberly, our Country Director in Iraq at the time the pandemic was declared, found herself leading a team that was reporting presumptive cases of COVID-19 across a number of bases. She was deeply worried about her colleagues: Iraq has a fragile health care system, and a national lockdown greatly restricted movement and the ability to access treatment if necessary.

Our healthy staff took on the task of contacting those who were sick. They tracked symptoms, checked in with each other, and assessed whether members of the household were also showing symptoms of COVID-19. Those calls would sometimes take hours to complete. There were language barriers to navigate, and calls would have to be placed multiple times if the network dropped or if the staff member didn’t pick up the first time. Symptoms were tracked using text messages, emails, Skype notifications, and Excel documents. The result was a patchwork quilt of information from which Kimberly had to make programming decisions about what activities could go ahead, and which we would need to postpone. It was unsustainable.

Working with our Innovation Advisor, Dominika, Kimberly developed the idea for an app that would enable Medair’s staff to not only track and report symptoms of COVID-19, but also manage protocols, staff compliance, and COVID-19 related communications. The app, Ready2Report (R2R), would enable a secure, two-way communication between isolated staff members and their line managers, and generate real-time analysis of individuals in isolation, dates of recent COVID tests, and number of days in isolation (among others). Those reports would enable senior leaders to make informed decisions about programming, and track indicators in coordination with Medair’s protocols (for example, about when to return to work after recovering from the virus).

After Medair phased out of Iraq in late 2020, Kimberly continued to work in the sector and with Medair by forming riskDelight, LLC, an innovation and technology company based in Atlanta, USA. Together, Medair and riskDelight successfully applied for a grant from Swiss Solidarity’s Innovation Fund to develop the R2R app. We assembled a team of experienced humanitarian workers with backgrounds in HR, health, IT, and innovation, and they began building the app that we hope will change how we are able to manage and respond to COVID cases in our teams. The app is now in its final developmental stages; in February we plan to test the app out to two country programmes where Medair works.

We’re excited about the prospect of what this app could do. Right now we’re piloting this regarding COVID, but the potential for use in other emergency responses is enormous. Once the teething issues are sorted out, there is potential for this app to be used during other epidemiological outbreaks, such as Ebola (to which we have previously responded to twice, once in the Democratic Republic of Congo and once in Sierra Leone), or highly contagious strains of flu (such as H1N1, the last pandemic the world faced). We’re hopeful that this app can be used by other humanitarian organisations responding to this and future viral outbreaks.

People are at the heart of what we do – and that includes our staff . With the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve been forced to think on our feet and adapt our programming to limit the spread of the virus. The Ready2Report app will help us make those decisions more quickly and ensure our most precious resource – our staff – are safe. By extension, we’ll be keeping the people we serve– people like Lalma and Saad – safe as well.

Because people are at the heart of everything we do.

The development of the Ready2Report app is funded by Swiss Solidarity.

This content was produced with resources gathered by Medair field and headquarters staff. The views expressed herein are those solely of Medair and should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of any other organisation.