Reflection on the 2020 Unite for Sight Virtual Global Health & Innovation Conference (April 11-13, 2020) by Eunice Anteh, Production Manager, Planetary Health Weekly

The COVID-19 global health pandemic is rapidly changing our normal ways of living, from work to being with friends and family. We have been affected in diverse ways and this pandemic has reminded us as humans of the things we took for granted. With no end date in sight for the novel coronavirus lockdowns and shelter at home orders and with the safety measures put in place to control the spread, the 2020 Virtual Global Health and Innovation Conference in April was made possible by Unite for Sight as a viable alternative to their usual annual in person annual conference. This is my report from attending. 

The virtual conference started with a Facebook live presentation by Dr. Jeffery Sachs (Director, Center for Sustainable Development, Columbia University; University Professor, Columbia University; Director, UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network; and Special Advisor to the UN Secretary General, António Guterres) on the topic “Economics of COVID-19”. Dr. Sachs discussed the budgetary needs of the pandemic including major policy issues, fiscal implications and provided some emergency financing instruments. He advocated that government should increase funding efforts to carry out fiscal policies. He made a profound statement: “we need to be creative, dynamic, flexible and act fast…to scale up the public health dramatically to be able to identify cases”. My key takeaway from this presentation is that governments need take immediate and sustained health containment actions and only then exit the shutdown phase to ease the economic burden and finance the massive budget deficits they are creating.

Sanjiv Chopra, Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School then led a conversation on “Leadership” moderated by Mark Roithmayr. Professor Chopra provided an in-depth definition of leadership and also a discussion from his book “Leadership by Example: The Ten Key Principles of all Great Leaders.” According to Dr. Chopra, leadership is the ability to articulate a vision and walk the path such as it inspires followers to get away from the banality and strife of their accommodating existence and achieve a higher and common goal. He drew on the accomplishments of Mahatma Gandhi and how they sum up the qualities of a great leader. He also highlighted on the need to get away from using the term “non-profit” and instead use “for-purpose” as the purposes of some charities are often misplaced, and their goals not fully achieved. He added that there are CEOs of nonprofit organizations who are making $1-2 million in salary with benefits and only 70% of charity funds invested in the organization. So we need to be careful which ones we donate to and work for.

Following, Mary-Ann Etiebet, Lead and Executive Director, Merck for Mothers delivered a keynote presentation entitled “Stories That Shape Us” which addressed the need to protect and support women to have the healthy and safe pregnancies, especially in this time of COVID-19 pandemic.  She included insights into how the maternal mortality rate is a vital sign of our health system and the health of our society. She articulated a way forward through an approach to understand the experiences of women across the globe and scale up innovations to provide the information, care and services that all women need.

Then there was an expert panel with presentations by Jane Aronson, Arachu Castro, Rebecca Hardin, Eve Heyn, Daniel Palazuelos, Lindsay Palazuelos and Richard Skolnik focusing on the topic “Crafting Your Journey in a Fulfilling Global Health Career.” They highlighted on how to grow one’s global health career particularly for students and recent graduates. They gave in-depth insights into the need to surround oneself with people with a better understanding of the global health landscape, gain field work experience, learn more about your area of interest, and find a role model which will give you a sense of direction. 

The following plenary panel discussed “Lessons Learned in Authentic Innovation, Collaboration and Outcomes” as presented by David Aylward, Cal Bruns, Paul Ellingstad and Eliza Squibb. Paul Ellingstad said: “We have to shut up and listen, tap into the intelligence, knowledge and learn. Innovation is about experimentation in collaboration with people who know more than you.” Their contributions were thought-provoking as they promoted the need for inter-disciplinary collaboration and the importance of corporate social responsibility efforts. Key lessons from this presentation focused on allowing other team members to express their views, being always open to learn something new and look for feedback, as well as giving oneself the freedom to think big and long-term.

“Lessons Learned in Healthcare Delivery and Embracing Every Challenge as an Opportunity to Grow” was presented by Arachu Castro, James Clarke, Scott Corlew, Charles MacCormack and Chris Underhill. They argued for transforming the delivery of care from being organized around the needs of health professionals to the needs of patients and stressed the need to give young people the opportunity to learn on the job. Their presentation reflected on the importance of community driven programs and to consider long-term sustainability. Dr. MacCormack concluded by saying “We should think globally and act locally.” For instance, the people and experts you meet at the field have a lot of experience to learn from, so listen to their story and build on their story to change the mindsets which are not helpful to them.

For the last expert panel, Paul Ellingstad, Charles MacCormack and Julie Mountcastle discussed the topic “We Are All Teachers and Learners: Humility and Respect in Innovation and Leadership.” They highlighted the importance of curiosity, continuous learning, action and willingness to learn from others, all part of being humble and respectful, including and importantly in leadership. Lessons learnt from this presentation include realizing we are part of a solution; build a consensus with our team and have patience through the learning journey.

Overall, the conference presentations were very informative and eye-opening especially for individuals and organizations in the global health sector. In total, there were 160 panels, oral presentations and poster presentations. In spite of the sessions and posters delivered by participants, I still missed the networking opportunities with individuals from across the world to share ideas, challenges, solutions and support.

Thank you to Unite for Sight for going above and beyond to provide a virtual platform to learn and interact with expert speakers with a common goal across the globe despite these challenging times. Planetary Health Weekly would like to recognize the tremendous work being done by all health professionals and support staff and all essential servants addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and all other global health and environmental problems.


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