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COVAX vaccine roll-out: 24000 does of the COVID-19 vaccine arrive in the Solomon Islands March 2021.
COVAX vaccine roll-out: 24000 does of the COVID-19 vaccine arrive in the Solomon Islands March 2021. - Image ©UNICEFPacific/2021/Bale. Source https://www.gavi.org/covax-facility

Fighting a pandemic with Australian-made skills

Research 8 minute read

New research shows Australia Awards alumni have made significant contributions to the COVID-19 response during the first 12 months of the pandemic.

The latest case study from the Australia Awards Global Tracer Facility showcases the different ways alumni from a range of sectors are using their skills, knowledge and networks developed on award in Australia to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Managed by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the Facility was established in 2016 to evaluate the long-term outcomes of Australia’s investment in the Australia Awards and predecessor government scholarships and fellowships.

The annual Global Tracer Survey conducted in late 2020 provided a unique opportunity to collect specific data relating to the initial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on alumni and their workplaces. More than 6200 alumni responded to the survey, with nearly half (47 per cent) saying they were directly involved in the COVID-19 response.

Over half of the alumni who reported being involved were considered secondary responders, supporting the roll out of policies through communications, information technology support and education. Around one in ten respondents identified as a first responder, such as medical and mental health workers and those involved in vaccine production. Around one in six respondents were involved in high-level policy and intergovernmental responses.

The survey asked alumni about the kind of tasks they undertook in the pandemic response:

  • over a quarter of alumni respondents’ tasks were policy and planning or development work
  • one quarter were providing education, awareness or communication about COVID-19
  • around one in seven alumni respondents were contributing to the scientific or medical development or assistance to the COVID-19 response
  • just over a tenth of alumni respondents were arranging or providing donations
  • a similar number or respondents distributed PPE and other medical resources
  • a small number of respondents also provided logistical and IT support during the COVID-19 response.

The Facility identified eight alumni from the survey results and undertook in-depth interviews to understand the unique contributions Australia Awards alumni are making across the globe in response to COVID-19.

These eight alumni have made significant development contributions during the first year of the pandemic through a range of fields including public health programming, emergency response and vaccine dissemination, media and communications, medical and mental health services, education and training, and monitoring and evaluation.

The evidence from both the interviews and the survey demonstrate that investment in Australian development scholarships has provided Australia’s partner countries with improved human resource capacity to respond to emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic. It is clear alumni are using technical knowledge and a range of soft skills developed on award in Australia to respond to the social, economic and public health challenges caused by the pandemic.

Many of these alumni are leaders in their fields and are sharing their skills and knowledge with others to help their communities adapt to change, rebuild stability, and strengthen essential services in response to COVID-19.

One such alum is Vietnamese alumna and former paediatrician Dr Tran Thi Giang Huong, the current Director, Division of Programmes for Disease Control, World Health Organisation (WHO) for the Western Pacific Region.

Dr Tran studied a Master of Public Health at the University of New South Wales, with several electives at the University of Sydney, between 1999 and 2001, before completing a doctoral degree in Public Health in Vietnam in 2009. Dr Tran worked as a senior public health official for the Ministry of Health in Vietnam for over 25 years, during which time she helped the country respond to the 2003 SARS outbreak and subsequent H5N1 and H1N1 influenza epidemics. 

Dr Tran told the Facility, ‘After 45 days, I think Vietnam was the first country in the world to successfully contain the SARS outbreak. So I was so lucky to be part of the team to respond to the SARS outbreak, and we learnt a lot from that, because there are not many people who can experience such a kind of response plan.’

Dr Tran joined WHO in July 2019, just six months before the pandemic began. In her role at WHO, Dr Tran is responsible for disease control programs affecting 1.9 billion people across 37 countries and economies in the Western Pacific Region, including Australia, China, Japan, Korea and New Zealand.

With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in China in early 2020, Dr Tran took on the additional role of Acting Regional Emergency Director and coordinated the initial emergency response in the region from January to October 2020. She worked closely with member states to suppress and contain the pandemic so that health systems would not be overwhelmed, using public health measures such as education campaigns, restrictions and community compliance, mask wearing, social distancing, and contact tracing.

‘We are very proud to say that among six WHO regions in the world, the Western Pacific Region has the lowest number of cases and lowest number of deaths due to COVID-19, and most of the countries in our region are working so well to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, including Vietnam, Cambodia, Lao [PDR], Singapore, Australia, New Zealand,’ Dr Tran said.

In October 2020, Dr Tran was asked to lead the roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccine in the Western Pacific Region. As part of this work Dr Tran is actively involved in ensuring fair and equitable distribution of the vaccine through the COVAX Facility.

‘We need to make sure that the countries in our region, especially the low income countries, low-middle income countries … and then the Pacific Island countries can have access to the vaccine,’ Dr Tran said. ‘Under COVAX, we are now trying to negotiate with the donors and trying to negotiate with the manufacturers to ensure that in 2021, we can have access to 2 billion doses of vaccine for the participating countries.’

Dr Tran said her Australian scholarship had a great impact on her career and ability to conduct public health programs.

‘I’m so happy that I could contribute my efforts and my knowledge to the country where I was born, and now to the 37 countries in the Western Pacific Region. So it’s my honour, and I’m so proud to be an AusAID alumna.’ ■

Find out more:
The Australian Awards Global Tracer Facility is managed by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) on behalf of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) .

To read the full case study by Jo Doyle and Leyna Clarke visit the Australia Awards Global Tracer Facility website.

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