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A new partnership model to respond to COVID-19 pandemic

As pandemics come, COVID-19 has triggered by far the greatest global call for increased partnership across sectors. When the outbreak was first reported in December 2019 in Wuhan China, it was primarily those in the health sector who were leaning in to engage. Today, COVID-19 response requires unprecedented and new models of partnerships that are agile and able to make bold decisions even with imperfect and rapidly evolving information, and in the absence of replicable models for engagement.

The Kenya National Business Compact on COVID-19 Response (NBCC) is one example of partnership evolution. Founded on the premise that it could be rapidly scaled across the region. NBCC is guided by four strategic pillars: Leadership & Passion; Alignment around Common Priority; Pooling of Resources; and Agility in Deployment.

Leadership & Passion

Leadership and passion matter and in combination can catalyse rapid action.

This action started with a phone call on 10th March with Myriam Sidibe, a friend and Senior Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School. She had an idea brewing, coronavirus required a national coalition approach. We talked about getting influencers on board to promote messaging; businesses in the hygiene industry to donate soap and sanitizers; the public relations and marketing associations to promote the messaging; donors to contribute. We would align our efforts with the Ministries of Health and ICT, and define a role for non-state actors including UN Representatives, private sector and non-governmental organisations to join the response to coronavirus.

We convened the first meeting of the NBCC on 16th March. On that morning, there were 3 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Kenya. In total, nearly 350 people had been diagnosed with the virus across Africa, 7 people had died while 42 had recovered according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The hardest hit African countries had declared national disasters; many others had issued travel bans, closed land border crossings and seaports, banned public gatherings and shut down schools. Kenya had denied entry to anyone traveling from countries with reported coronavirus cases.

There was – there still is – one driving factor: if Africa cannot stem the curve of COVID-19, the human impact will be insurmountable, the toll on our fragile health systems irreversible and the economic impact crippling. We needed to accelerate the pace of action to flatten transmission.

Alignment Around Common Priority

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We came away with two key actions. First, the urgent need for handwashing and social distancing messaging – because for Africa, risk communication and community engagement (RCCE) are going to be the game changer. Second, we would support the urgent needs of the Ministry of Health.

We agreed that we needed a multi-sectoral engagement aligned and endorsed by the Government. This was a unique opportunity for the Government to work with non-state actors to re-imagine the use of resources and know-how to ensure urgent deployment of information and interventions across the country. There was no blueprint on how the Government was going to engage non-state actors, we were creating a new model of engagement to respond to this epidemic. The urgent need to safeguard the poorest and hardest to reach kept us aligned.

Even as we were discussing this, common patterns were beginning to emerge – private sector, civil society organizations and others were coalescing around the pandemic response. Now, our partners are calling us to see how they can support this looming threat.

The scale, scope and human conditions we are dealing with are vast. How do we ensure handwashing with soap when the majority of Kenyans do not have running water, much less soap? How do we engage the public on social distancing when informal settlements dot our cities and urban towns, and entire families live in one room? How can we mobilize one of our biggest assets, community health workers, to ensure that the key messages on social distancing and hygiene are shared?

Our first order of business has been to develop risk communication and community engagement (RCCE) endorsed by the Government. Our second priority is to deliver handwashing stations to 7,500 high density hotspot areas including marketplaces and matatu pick up spots.

Pooling of Resources

A week after setting up the NBCC, we had a Flexible Fund and Paybill number to receive unrestricted donations to support our work. Amref, with its long-standing track record of managing both small and large grants from various donors, served as the anchor institution to manage the funds. The UN SDG Platform has stepped in to provide support for staffing of the NBCC secretariat to ensure that 100% of donations go to the respond to urgent needs of the Ministry of Health and not a penny to overhead. Global giants operating in Kenya including Unilever and Reckitt Benckiser, and regional manufacturers such as Menengai Soap Factory, PZ Cussons East Africa, Pwani Oil, Haco Industries and Tropikal Brands, among many others have put aside normal operations to support the response.

The Marketing Society of Kenya and its members are leading the development and deployment of communication assets such as billboards, social media messaging, the NBCC website, and children’s puppetry programming with Government-approved messaging. Within a few weeks, NBCC has received in-kind and cash contributions totalling over Ksh 70 million.

We are leaning on partners like BRCK and Amref with local innovations to tackle training of frontline health workers and provide connectivity to low bandwidth areas to enable mobile use for knowledge sharing.

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Agility in Deployment

We are receiving urgent requests through the Resource Mobilization Sub-Committee of the National COVID-19 Response Committee led by the Ministry of Health. Partners such as the Rotary Club of Nairobi have stepped up to lead handwashing installations to Ministry of Health-identified hotspots areas across the nation, leveraging the distribution channels of partners such as Copia and Jumia Group to get water facilities to the last mile. The flexible fund is providing resources for safe removal of bio-hazardous waste and providing necessities in Government-run quarantine facilities.

Our agility in responding quickly has been fundamental to our ability to deliver on these requests. To date, NBCC has delivered 2,500 handwashing station across the country. It has leveraged the radio and television prime time advertising spots donated by partners to disseminate critical messaging. And we have only just begun.

The strength of this partnership response is anchored on the magnitude of this pandemic and the impact it will have in Africa, as well as the realization that business as usual is not an option at a time like this. While there will always be those who see crisis as an opportunity to profit, we have seen partners rise above this to deliver solutions and preserve our people. Bravo to those who have stepped up for the good of all.

Desta Lakew is the Director of Partnerships & External Relations, Amref Health Africa

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