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COVID-19 and Global Health Research

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Published: 26 February 2021

 Zoom conference

For Dr Franklin Onukwugha, Associate Lecturer in Health and Social Care at the University of Sunderland in London, COVID-19 presented a unique challenge.

When travel restrictions meant he couldn’t conduct his research on health issues amongst young people in Northern Nigeria, his team came up with an innovative solution – moving online.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has not only affected the world economy but has shaped the way global health research is done.

When coming up with a proposal, funders now ask you to think about travel restrictions.

This is to make sure the project can happen effectively and have the greatest level of benefit to the countries involved.

Bearing that in mind global health researchers must understand how they could adapt their activities during COVID-19.

I, along with my colleagues in countries around the world, wanted to look at how we can improve the health outcomes of young people in Northern Nigeria.

Our work, funded by Research England’s Global Challenges Research Fund, is known as the School Health Project (SHP).

We were joined by researchers and policy experts from the University of Hull, Aga Khan University in Uganda, the Family and Youth Health Initiative in Nigeria, the International Network for Advancing Science (INASP) and Policy from Oxford and the local Ministries of Health and Education in Nigeria.

We aimed to create an informed, culturally sensitive, cost-effective and long-lasting health intervention programme in Nigeria.

The region has one of the poorest health ratings in the world, with a particularly high rate of pregnancy terminations among the youth.

We’d already been out to Kano State, Northern Nigeria once, and had planned to revisit the area in April 2020 for five-days of intense research activities.

The trip was meant to address some of the major issues identified by our stakeholders on our first visit.

But when the COVID-19 crisis started to take effect around the globe, travelling became impossible.

We wondered how we could overcome the challenge and continue working to improve the lives of young people in the region.

We resolved to take advantage of technology and pivot to a series of online webinars.

Our first step was to carry out a digital workshop for researchers, practitioners, policymakers and legislators from Kano and Jigawa States in Nigeria.

The talks focused on how to improve the collection and use of evidence to guide policy and decision-making in the area.

This was quickly followed by a second online workshop with a wider audience representing all our interested parties including ministers and directors from Nigeria’s Ministries of Health and Education.

The webinar was aimed at reviewing the findings of our previous report and to work out the main elements needed for sustainable programmes tackling the health issues of young people in the area.

The workshops were a bold experiment. We wanted to test whether it was possible and acceptable to hold meaningful discussions with a large number of stakeholders virtually.

This was particularly challenging because many of the people included in the talks were based in remote areas with poor internet access.

Despite the unfamiliar technology and Wi-Fi instability due to heavy rain on the day in Nigeria, the workshops were very successful.

Many senior policymakers, traditional leaders, Non-Governmental Organisations, health practitioners, academics and community groups made a huge effort to join the workshops.

Each of them added a valuable contribution to the discussion.

There was a general agreement of the need to prioritise young people's health, especially their sexual and reproductive wellness.

Our stakeholders made a strong commitment to work with our research team to create a health promotion scheme aimed at meeting these challenges.

We also developed a series of reflections and lessons learned from our work, focussing on how global health research activities can be delivered during the pandemic.

You can read a summary of our reflections on the INASP website. It includes looking into building community trust, collecting data remotely, ethical challenges, realism, avoiding the digital divide and reshaping relationships in global health research.

Developing interventions formed around academic theory to tackle health issues is at the core of the University of Sunderland in London’s MSc Public Health programme.

Our students are taught the core research skills needed to work in public health institutions.

You’ll learn from academics who deliver cutting edge research addressing health challenges, and support local, national and global health systems.”

Dr Franklin Onukwugha is an Associate Lecturer at the University, teaching in the Nursing and Health department.

You can find out more about the courses he’s involved in on the BSc (Hons) Health and Social Care and MSc Public Health pages. Find out more by following #WeAreSunLon on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.