Countries in central Asia, the southern Caucasus and the Balkans share technical expertise and resources with each other via regional hubs set up by WHO/Europe in Kyrgyzstan, Georgia and Serbia respectively. The countries in each hub share similar levels of socioeconomic development, population health profiles, and health system challenges. During the COVID-19 pandemic, these links proved vital.
“Being on hand when emergencies hit has become one of the main benefits of this structure. Experts are leading from the outset, ready to respond to actual needs and able to build on established relationships with stakeholders and partners as well as work across WHO programmes,” says Dr Dorit Nitzan, Acting Director of Emergencies, WHO/Europe.
Established in 2017, the 3 hubs cover 15 countries. In each hub, a coordinator ensures that support is available from WHO to monitor and assess emergency preparedness and, more recently, COVID-19 response capacities and needs in each country. The closeness of these coordinating teams facilitated a swift and agile response to the virus.
Bonds and bridges
“We are building bridges of trust that are not visible to our eyes,” is how Dr Tasnim Atatrah, Coordinator of the Central Asian Hub, describes the work of the hubs. Alongside parallel teams in the southern Caucasus and the Balkans, her hub adapts COVID-19 technical advice from WHO to take into account local sensitivities and health system constraints.
“Before the pandemic, we worked closely with countries on strengthening their emergency preparedness core capacities in line with the International Health Regulations 2005,” she explains. “This then put us in a good position to work with countries to assess needs and capacities in relation to COVID-19, and collaborate with stakeholders and international experts to help countries better withstand the effects of the virus.”
By sharing human resources and cutting travel costs, the hub system increases efficiency. Hub teams were well placed to provide timely COVID-19 guidance, matching WHO and partners’ support to the needs of individual countries. The familiarity of the teams with country-specific health systems, ministries of health, experts’ networks, civil society organizations and United Nations country offices proved to be critical in engaging countries with the European Region’s COVID-19 response.
At the start of the pandemic, a WHO expert assessed the equipment, resources and biosafety levels in laboratories in the 3 countries of the Southern Caucasus Hub. “The expert was able to improve COVID-19 diagnostics in line with WHO standards, through round the clock engagement with laboratory staff, baseline assessments, face-to-face and online consultations, and on-the-job training,” says Vasily Esenamanov, Coordinator of the Southern Caucasus Hub.
Bosnia and Herzegovina also received a technical expert from neighbouring Serbia, highlighting the role of the hub in encouraging intercountry solidarity and support, which Abebayehu Assefa Mengistu, Coordinator of the Balkan Hub, says “are more important than ever during a crisis, and, in this case, crucial to containing the pandemic”.
In the Central Asia Hub, Kyrgyzstan successfully presented its evidence-based preparedness and response plan to international partners via the hub platform, following an assessment by experts in emergencies. This ability to mobilize resources helped other countries gain support from regional partners, allowing them to improve surge capacity and provide equipment and training for their health workforce.
The hubs’ wealth of knowledge ensures that WHO guidelines and tools are optimized according to each country’s socioeconomic reality and needs. On-the-ground scientific assessments assist countries in developing their health systems and improving emergency preparedness, as well as promoting intensive and fit-for-purpose activities in every aspect of public health.