More than a Pandemic: Lessons Learned from Responding in the Context of COVID-19

More than a Pandemic: Lessons Learned from Responding in the Context of COVID-19

This blog post summarizes best practices identified during Airlink’s recently concluded webinar series “Humanitarian Logistics in the Context of COVID-19”. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic started to disrupt daily life earlier this year, humanitarian organizations were faced with the challenge of how to continue serving vulnerable populations in a safe and efficient manner. Travel restrictions and health considerations put large volunteer deployments on hold, supply chain constraints made procurement difficult, and decreased airline capacity heavily impacted air freight availability, resulting in increased costs for moving essential supplies and creating yet another hurdle for organizations already dealing with limited budgets. In this changing landscape, Airlink developed the AviationCARES program (Coordinated Air Response for Emergency Supplies), and over the last ten months the organization has worked with the aviation community to help nonprofits save more than 2.5 million dollars in transportation costs related to responses to COVID-19 and other emergencies that have occurred in this context.

As a sector, we have learned a lot this year, and it’s vital that we take these lessons learned and apply them to future emergencies”.

Stephanie Steege, Humanitarian Programs Director, Airlink

With that goal, during the month of November Airlink conducted a 10-session webinar series featuring a wide range of nonprofit, logistics, and philanthropic actors sharing knowledge, innovations and lessons learned from their responses to emergencies in a COVID-19 environment. Across the various regions of the world and their different operating contexts, there are a few lessons that were broadly applicable to the humanitarian community at large. This blog post summarizes some of the best practices shared by our nonprofit partners. 

We were fortunate enough to have partners like Airlink who were committed to going where the need was, who were flexible, and patient, and persistent in helping us get there.”

Jason Obten, Global Logistics Director, Project Hope

The best practices section of Airlink’s webinar series started with the webinar “Responding to COVID-19 in Asia Pacific” with Airlink partners Project Hope and World Central Kitchen. Partnerships emerged as a central theme and have been critical to launching successful responses, such as Project Hope’s early response in China, training health workers and supporting hospitals in Wuhan, or World Central Kitchen response in Japan to deliver fresh meals to quarantined passengers of the Diamond Princess Cruise in Yokohama. 

[Serving a 3,000-passenger cruise ship during a pandemic] required a swift response in order to procure almost 100,000 to-go containers and do that within a 24 hour response time, and a 72 hour product turnaround time. We couldn’t thank Airlink enough for making this possible.

Jason Collis, Director of Procurement & Strategic Partnerships, World Central Kitchen

Partnerships were also instrumental for sharing information in real time, and leveraging like-minded organizations’ core capabilities. As new needs were identified, organizations capitalized on opportunities to strengthen existing relationships. The session “Responding to COVID-19 in Africa” featured Airlink partners We Care Solar and Partners In Health (PIH). Jesse Greenspan, Director of Supply Chain and Logistics at PIH reflected, “Airlink is a great example of this. We had worked together before but we were able to strengthen the relationship during the COVID response, identifying specific gaps where Airlink opened up logistical options for us.”

Pardon Moyo, a consultant with VillageReach, talked about the COVID-19 Action Fund for Africa (CAF), a collaborative initiative to provide 97.5 million pieces of PPE to Community Health Workers (CHWs) in 21 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Pardon talked specifically about the logistical challenges to ensure last mile supply planning and distribution. 

Flexibility was also key to adapt programs to the new reality. Pascal Nkezabera, a registered pharmacist with Partners In Health in Malawi, mentioned how some community buildings were repurposed into health clinics, reducing the patient volume at existing clinics. Kim Gordon, Senior Manager of Global Programs at We Care Solar talked about the switch to online training for health workers and personnel installing the Solar Suitcases to provide healthcare facilities with reliable lighting.

Airlink partners Americares and ADRA International participated in the session “Responding to COVID-19 in Latin America and the Caribbean”. ADRA International focused on their projects in the Caribbean, highlighting the efforts to support their country offices to localize their responses. Americares shared information on their work in Colombia, particularly their focus to provide access to healthcare for migrants fleeing the humanitarian emergency in Venezuela. 

Leveraging partnerships on the ground is critical […] to coordinating responses that actually make sense”.

Diana Medina, Associate Director of Emergency Response LAC, Americares

Local expertise was also crucial for launching an effective response to Lebanon in the aftermath of the Beirut explosion. The session “Beirut Explosion Response: Addressing a Complex Emergency During a Pandemic” featured Airlink partners Anera, Project C.U.R.E. and Heart to Heart International. Anera’s extensive experience and local presence in Lebanon uniquely positioned the organization to lead a coordinated intervention, identifying needs lists and sharing information with partners and donors like Project C.U.R.E., Heart to Heart International, and other organizations that responded to the call with the donation of medical equipment, hygiene kits, and other essential supplies. 

The biggest piece of our response is on the medical donations, we immediately sent more shipments in the first month after the blast than we had in the whole prior year”.

Sean Carroll, President and CEO, Anera 

The importance of localization was also evident in the responses to the record-breaking 2020 Atlantic hurricane season. As communities in Louisiana and throughout the Gulf were hit by Hurricanes Laura, Sally, Delta, and Zeta, organizations working in the area of disaster response were challenged with limited sheltering options and safety considerations for their responders, who are often volunteers. All Hands and Hearts and the Information Technology Disaster Resource Center (ITDRC) shared their experiences handling volunteer deployments in the session “Four Storms: How Nonprofits Responded in the Gulf During a Pandemic.” Joe Hillis, Director of Operations at the ITDRC shared insights into projectConnect, a nationwide initiative to provide free community WiFi installations, and he emphasized the organization’s efforts to use local volunteers when possible. Meanwhile, Gary Pitts, Chief Operating Officer at All Hands and Hearts, explained the organization’s planning process to develop the DM12 volunteer program, an initiative designed to mitigate the risk of COVID-19  while still offering a volunteer-powered program. Through DM12, they’ve been able to reduce the number of people arriving and departing the program, sending the same team for a 12-week period, and ultimately restarted their volunteer-driven programs in mid-2020.

As countries around the world embark in the journey to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, Airlink remains committed to keep vital supply chains moving to deliver humanitarian aid. We will continue driving initiatives to build collective response capacity and increase humanitarian logistics expertise for relief organizations. Head to our Youtube channel to see all of the sessions discussed in this article, and stay tuned for more webinars in 2021.


Header Photo: MASERU, LESOTHO – FEBRUARY 5, 2018 – Nurse Mahali Lethetsa and Mabatloung Mofolo, hospital administrator. (Photo Credit: Partners in Health)

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