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Five COVID Response Insights for Digital Development Practitioners

By Wayan Vota on March 13, 2020

covid digital health workshop

The COVID Digital Response Workshop yesterday brought together 300 digital development practitioners from governments, donors, and health systems in low- and middle-income countries to explore the challenges and opportunities for COVID19 Response.

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Over three hours, we explored the novel coronavirus impact on healthcare systems and where digital health solutions could improve resilience and reduce the disruption of pandemic infections. Through the engaging presentations, interactive breakout sessions, and quick lightning talks, I came away with several insights:

1. Large Online Peer Learning is Possible

My first takeaway was that it is totally possible to engage 300 people for three hours on a massive Zoom teleconference. We did this by combining a rock-star lineup, with high-quality participants, and stellar moderation, resulting in very detailed documentation. Probably better documentation than any in-person event since every session was recorded.

I am now confident that we can scale a virtual Global Digital Development Forum to a thousand participants, creating a massive online meeting that rivals an in-person conference for learning and impact. Look for a future announcement shortly and get in touch if you’re interested in helping.

2. Invest in Existing Systems

Time and again, presenters and discussants made the point that the most effective investments are incremental improvements to existing healthcare systems – not radically new innovations. No one has time to learn a whole new workflow when they are overwhelmed with coronavirus caseloads.

Better is to invest in strengthening existing systems with the “boring” but very effect maintenance and support investments that are often skipped in normal times. If there is innovation, it should be incremental, and focused on easy wins that come with minimal disruption.

Health Alert Example

My favorite example of this idea is HealthAlert, which uses the popular WhatsApp communications platform to send COVID-19 messages to South Africans, based on their questions and National Department of Health guidelines. The only “new” thing is a natural language processing engine that answers most queries automagically.

To all the users, this system relies on technology they are already comfortable with and know how to operate – no training or behaviour change needed for adoption. This means HealthAlert can be rolled out today into any country where WhatsApp is popular, which is pretty much any LMIC.

3. Invest in Health Workers

I was surprised that a group of techies would be so in favor of old school human approaches, but multiple people focused on the need to invest in human resources for health. This could be simply better training and support of frontline health workers, to advanced decision support tools for quick COVID-19 diagnosis – by a health worker or the patient themselves.

This will be more important when frontline health workers themselves become sick and need diagnosis and treatment, further straining the health system. Here there were calls for automated systems that patients could use to self-diagnose ailment.


I was sold on COMPASS when I saw how easy it would be for frontline health workers to access the platform and review standardized programming guidelines. COMPASS is already deployed in multiple countries and supports staff at all levels with modular interventions, so again, no “new” software tools to learn.

COMPASS now has coronavirus modules developed by health experts for preventative measures and case management at the facility and community level that includes localized indicators, clinical forms, auditing activities, and procurement lists. Health workers can already refer to resources in COMPASS to understand coronavirus impact on their catchment populations.

4. Investment is Happening Now

We heard from USAID and the Kaiser Family Foundation about $8.3 billion in financial assistance from multiple corporate, foundation, and government donors. Both foundations and corporations were fast in pledging donations for COVID-19 response, and the money is moving quickly to effected communities.

However the real donation volume comes from government – 91% of the total amount – albeit through a slower process. Bilateral funding will also have a longer lasting impact on health systems.

USAID and CDC Investments

It was particularly gratifying to hear about investments from the US government. The Coronavirus Bill provides $986 million to USAID for global health programs, international disaster assistance, and economic support. $300 million goes to CDC for global COVID-19 disease detection and emergency response efforts.

Now if only that was enough to stop COVID-19…

5. What Else?

If you attended the workshop, what were your insights or takeaways? How do you see digital health increasing the COVID Response ability of LMIC health systems?

Even if you didn’t attend, please share in the comments the challenges you see for health systems, and how we can respond to this global healthcare emergency.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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3 Comments to “Five COVID Response Insights for Digital Development Practitioners”

  1. Manmeet Kaur says:


    Really happy to see us mentioned in your workshop notes.
    At Translators without Borders, we want to ensure people have access to the information they need, in a language they understand. This is why we are offering language support to translate key content aimed at improving public awareness about Covid-19.

    We can translate content into Chinese (simplified and traditional), Thai, Vietnamese, Bahasa Indonesian, Tagalog, Korean, Japanese, Malay, Myanmar, Hindi, and Bangla, and have the ability to quickly include more languages if needed. We can translate text in written documents but can also support with translations for audio-visual formats. With our current funding, we are able to offer this support without any costs for open access resources.
    We are also developing language and literacy maps and datasets and a multilingual terminology resource.

    For more information about the language support we can provide to teams working on this coronavirus outbreak, contact [email protected].

    This project is funded by the H2H Fund, a funding mechanism for H2H Network members supported by UK aid.

    Grateful if you could circulate amongst your workshop participants.
    Warm regards,

  2. Mikel Maron says:

    Was impressive to see that several hundred people could meet and communicate like that. Hope Zoom can scale up to meet the growing demand.

    Main takeaway from me was the startling lack of the most basic data standards. There’s not agreed on way to structure simply case numbers, and no institution has a mandate to develop one. That means there’s an opening for a collaborative effort to quickly define a simple standard, champion and build on it. Possibly as simple as an HXL dictionary for basic epidemiological data https://hxlstandard.org/standard/1-1final/dictionary/. Would like to hear from others thinking about this.

  3. Jesus Melendez Vicente says:

    Just came across this additional list that includes a variety of COVID-19 resources tech and non tech, for non-profits and philanthropy https://docs.google.com/document/d/1k5pC-R1V4SK4bRPN7cqh9WpIxubXP5tt8qpF5hinMoQ/edit