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BLN offers virtual platform for peer learning as countries square off against COVID-19

By Celina Kareiva, Senior Communications Associate

May 27, 2020

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Photo: PATH/Paul Nindi. BLN members visit a health facility in Lusaka during an in-person meeting before COVID-19. The peer learning network has taken on new importance for its virtual spaces amid an evolving global pandemic.

On a Thursday last month, the Zoom line crackled with greetings and introductions. BID Learning Network (BLN) members from more than a dozen different countries and professional backgrounds convened for a webinar presentation about the application of electronic immunization registries (EIRs) to the COVID-19 pandemic. The webinar, which opened with two presentations from Pakistan and Tanzania, was followed by a discussion about maintaining immunization services even as many countries struggle to curb COVID-19. Countries shared challenges, their early lessons from the pandemic, and their concerns for the coming months. It was a chance to talk candidly with peers about a rapidly evolving outbreak that has gripped every corner of the globe.

“It was such a rich conversation and a rare opportunity for countries to engage about an issue that we’re all trying to make sense of at once,” explained Dr. Chilunga Puta, Director of the BID Learning Network. “As the countries try to cut through the noise, the BLN is a space to translate global guidance and a growing evidence base on COVID-19 for their local realities.”

Meetings may look very different these days, but in the age of COVID-19 the BLN is providing a critical outlet for countries grappling with pandemic response. Since its start in 2014, the BLN has built a legacy and trusted relationships with countries across sub-Saharan Africa. Webinars, digital forums, and study visits have fueled the learning network, connecting health professional, Expanded Program on Immunization (EPI) managers, and digital leaders to solve for their most pressing data challenges. Since its start, the BLN has expanded its scope beyond immunization to address a wider range of routine data challenges at a primary health care level. And the value of these connections and virtual dialogues has grown exponentially in the face of COVID-19.

“Now more than ever, collaboration is critical. We can’t fight a global pandemic without steady, trusted connection between stakeholders,” explained Dr. Puta. “And in the absence of in-person meetings, conferences, and other venues, the BLN is filling a critical gap for countries navigating the effects on their health systems using virtual platforms.”

A lot of learning networks only function as a one-way vehicle for sharing out lessons. But the BLN is different. It’s a space for mutual exchange, so countries can both benefit from and contribute to the knowledge base, whether it’s refining a digital readiness checklist to ensure the tool accurately reflects country realities, or providing lessons on implementation to inform global guidance. In return, the BLN offers neutral ground and technology agnostic guidance on the different digital tools available to countries to help them weigh their options and identify the most appropriate solution for their country’s context.

To deepen country engagement, the BLN is also experimenting with other activities. For instance, countries at different junctures in their digital journey, such as Cameroon and The Gambia, have been paired up to help one another learn in an activity called “peer pairing. Those further along coach countries just embarking on their digital journeys on a range of topics, from budgeting for digital solutions to training the health workforce on the new tools.

“Since my engagement with the BLN, I have been able to lobby for additional resources to implement the innovations learned from the BLN,” said one member. “Through the BLN, my knowledge of EIRs has helped me give advice to my organization on the approach to adapt electronic solutions.”

The BLN has also been experimenting with discussion vignettes or short case studies on its Google Groups forum. The vignettes present different hypothetical scenarios based on real world challenges, allowing countries to problem solve together. In a recent example, BLN members were asked to consider how countries could make use of EIRs to respond to community transmission of COVID-19.

“Countries aren’t passive participants in the BLN. They’re defining the learning agenda, leading conversations, and inputting into many of the newest digital tools and systems,” said Dr. Puta. “This is game changing.”



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