COVID-19 Alumni Stories: Francesca Viliani

Francesca Viliani studied MSc Public Health in Developing Countries at LSHTM in 2005. She now works as the Director of Public Health and co-head of Sustainability at International SOS. In this post she describes her work promoting the wellbeing of employees and their families at these uncertain times. She explains how she has worked with pandemics, how LSHTM aided her future career and how her life has been affected.

How has the COVID-19 outbreak affected your work?

My workload has increased but other things have not changed much. I have been working on outbreak and pandemic preparedness and response since getting my MPH from LSHTM. The first assignment as a public health consultant was in Indonesia at the time of the avian influenza and since then I have been working on multiple outbreaks, including the pandemic influenza and the West Africa Ebola outbreak. So at the moment I am working around the clock on COVID-19. And while I am working from home as many other people nowadays, I have a global role within International SOS so I am pretty used to relying on connecting technologies to collaborate and communicate with colleagues and partners in other parts of the world.

How have you been responding to the outbreak?

I currently spend most of my working hours on advising companies and other organisations on how best to protect and promote the wellbeing of employees and their families during the COVID-19 pandemic as key component of their business continuity strategy. Another key aspect is to identify ways companies can contribute to the protection of health and promotion of wellbeing of the local communities in this hard time.

As a public health expert my approach has always been on multi-stakeholder collaborations for preparedness and response. Epidemics and pandemics are characterised by social complexity and technical difficulties, and the health threat is further exacerbated by the increase of insecurity, unreliability of the supply chain, closing of the borders and halt of international flights, among others. These challenges cannot be addressed effectively by individual companies, or by single States alone. To tackle them we need a whole-of-society approach. But now during the COVID-19 more than ever such approach seems very difficult to realise. So I see my role as advisor with companies to help them navigate the diverse set of national and/or local regulations and encourage them not only to follow the regulations but also to be an active member of countries and cities response teams.

How has your countries response to the outbreak affected your work?

I was in Milan in mid-February to do a presentation to our clients on the importance of business continuity plans and using COVID-19 as main example! I was still in Milan when the first local cases were reported on the 23 February. Upon my return to Denmark, where I live, I was on quarantine for two weeks, and once ready to go out again, Denmark introduced the lock down as well. Denmark was the first country in Europe after Italy to introduce restrictions, and this has allowed the level of infection to remain manageable and not put an excessive strain on the health system. But the prime minister has alerted the Danish to not plan big parties for the Easter break!

How has LSHTM’s training helped you during this outbreak?

Everything I learnt during my year at LSHTM has helped me in my work on pandemics over the years! From epidemiology and statistics, to medical anthropology, ethics and human rights, they have made me a public health expert that reviews scientific evidence but also considers the context, social cultural dimensions, and local wisdom.

Would you like to add anything else?

I took this picture (below) the day I made my presentation on COVID-19 in Milan in mid-February, feels like a life-time ago! It was clearly inspired by what I learned about John Snow while in London. I was thinking about the importance of established public health practices and epidemiology and the key role of risk communication. I did not expect that thought to become my daily mantra. 

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Information about how you can support, promote and share LSHTM’s COVID-19 Response work is available here.

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