Dr Chadia Wannous, graduated with a Master’s of Science in Reproductive and Sexual Health Research from LSHTM in 1999 and has been at the forefront of prevention, preparedness and response to health emergencies for more than 15 years. Unsurprisingly, in the past months the focus of her work has shifted fully to the COVID-19 response efforts. In this interview with Noreen Seyerl, IDEAS Communications Officer at LSHTM, Chadia speaks about the importance of building resilient health systems and calls for global solidarity to ensure everyone’s right to health.
Dr. Wannous, could you tell us a little bit about your very impressive career to date?
I have over 28 years of experience in public health, working in different regions of the world with national authorities and international organisations for better health and wellbeing. Since 2005, I have worked extensively on advancing prevention, preparedness, risk reduction and response to health emergencies, including influenza and Ebola outbreaks, with a focus on meeting the needs of vulnerable groups and strengthening the resilience of communities and health systems.
One of the critical initiatives I worked on is the One Health approach, which integrates sectors and disciplines at the interface between animal, human and environmental health to address the impact of global environmental changes on the health of our planet and society.
Currently, I provide expert policy and technical inputs for entities such as Future Earth Health Knowledge Network and the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) on risk reduction of health threats. And also supporting Women in Global Health’s efforts to promote gender responsive leadership in health and women empowerment.
How has your work been affected by COVID-19?
Since the start of the pandemic early this year, my work has shifted from Ebola preparedness and recovery efforts to COVID-19 response. Due to travel restrictions, my work has gone fully digital. However, the focus remains the same, that is to advocate for prevention and preparedness as the key to reduce our risk of pandemics and for investments to build resilient health systems that can withstand and deal with all types of disasters and emergencies. Moreover, I work to raise awareness that tackling risk drivers, including global environmental changes such as land use, encroachment on natural habitats, unsustainable production and consumption behaviors, agricultural intensification and climate changes, is the pathway to prevent pandemics from happening repeatedly and with increased frequency, intensity and impact.
How did your training at LSHTM prepare you and help you in your response work now?
My training at LSHTM prepared me for working in complex situations on multifaceted problems such as reducing the risks of emerging infectious diseases or dealing with risk drivers. The skills I gained through my studies at LSHTM have provided me with strong foundations in research and epidemiology and also the ability to translate science into policy options and implementation projects at different levels and scales.
We are now about nine months into the pandemic, is there positive news on the horizon?
The pandemic brought suffering and pain to many around the world with negative consequences not just for patients and their families but also for the social and economic fabric of our communities, with disproportional impact on vulnerable groups.
Nine months on and we are still not out of the woods. But, the positive aspect is our ability to adapt and to innovate to do our jobs and keep in touch with colleagues, family and friends. We have also seen the importance of science and evidence grow and scientists, researchers and policy makers coming together to find solutions and fight for common humanity.
In the future, when we have learned to deal with COVID-19, how do you think our lives will have changed?
Our post-COVID-19 world will not be back to normal as we know it, but a new normal will emerge that is more digital and flexible. However, we need to work towards bridging the digital divide, so we don’t leave people without access to information and communications technologies more disadvantaged than before.
Another aspect that I hope will continue into the post-COVID-19 era is the extensive practices of infection prevention and control in the workplaces, in public areas and in personal life.
More importantly, this experience has pushed us to think more carefully about our relations with nature and this can lead to more conservation and protection of natural assets that respect our ecosystems and biodiversity.
What is the most important thing you have learned from this pandemic?
The pandemic has taught us that global solidarity and renewed commitment to multilateralism is the only way we can confront existential risks. The right to health entails an obligation to ensure all people have access to all the tools and products needed to defeat COVID-19. We also need to rethink how we assess and finance prevention and preparedness and strengthen the legal frameworks that govern public health.
Women leadership in global health makes a difference. We have seen successful examples of dealing with COVID-19 in countries and institutions led by women around the world. We have to ensure gender equality and gender responsive approaches to health by including women in global health security decision and policy making, disaggregate data by sex, and ensure health workers, mostly women, work in safe and decent conditions.
The pandemic has furthermore clearly demonstrated that we need to focus on the poor and the vulnerable groups of our society including the elderly, migrants and refugees and women, who are disproportionately affected by pandemics and by other emergencies and disasters.