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EU-funded project bolsters COVID-19 response in Eastern Partnership countries

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A 35 million euro grant from the European Union (EU) has strengthened COVID-19 response and saved lives in 6 countries in the WHO European Region.

Over the course of 1.5 years, the funds have helped deliver nearly 12 million units of personal protective equipment, such as medical masks, goggles and isolation gowns, and 4000 units of biomedical equipment, including oxygen concentrators and ventilators, to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine.

These efforts have improved infection prevention and control in 370 health facilities and supported the training of more than 6000 health-care and front-line professionals to respond to COVID-19.

This resource also helped improve the proportion of hospitalized patients who recovered from COVID-19, and reduced infection rates among health-care workers.

Making a difference during the COVID-19 pandemic

“Without the oxygen concentrator it was impossible for me to do anything, including talking,” said a patient being treated for COVID-19 in Armenia, with equipment supplied from EU funds. “As soon as the machine was set up, I was able to breathe again.”

To scale up COVID-19 testing capacity, and monitor and track the spread of the virus, WHO also worked closely with ministries of health to train 900 laboratory staff across the 6 countries on infection prevention, biosafety and biosecurity, and the safe collection, transportation and processing of test samples.

Natalia Kolyadko, deputy chief freelance specialist on laboratory diagnostics in the Belarus Ministry of Health, acknowledged, “These training activities allow lab specialists to exchange experiences, engage in fruitful discussions on the use of innovative technologies, and address ways to improve the quality of clinical and laboratory tests.”

In addition, 161 laboratories went through quality assurance checks for COVID-19 detection, and 200 000 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests and lab supplies were delivered in Armenia and Ukraine alone, boosting testing capacities.

Building an enabled health workforce

More than 6000 responders and health-care workers in all the 6 countries have been briefed on the latest guidance and trained in infection prevention, case investigation and best practices in the treatment of patients with COVID-19.

“We learned not only how to combat the spread of the virus; we also gained insight into the ways and importance of collaborating across different public institutions during health emergencies,” said one participant from the national Administration of the Regional Medical Division (TABIB) in Azerbaijan.

In Ukraine alone, training sessions on mental health issues concerning patients and health workers alike reached professionals from 220 health-care facilities across the country.

Engaging with communities to curb the spread of the virus

With support from the EU-funded project and by applying WHO-developed methodology, national health authorities conducted regular surveys to provide insight into public knowledge, risk perceptions, behaviours and trust towards COVID-19 measures. The results of these studies have informed public health communications and guidance in the 6 countries.

In Georgia, the EU and WHO connected with over 100 key community influencers, including religious leaders, workers in elderly homes, long-haul truck drivers and market vendors, to train them on COVID-19 prevention.

In the Republic of Moldova, a 2-month information campaign to combat stigma associated with COVID-19 reached more than 1 million people.

WHO staff in the regional and country offices have worked closely with national partners, EU delegations, and other stakeholders to build a more resilient health sector by updating national guidelines on infectious diseases, developing hospital capacity surge plans, and building logistical infrastructure needed to increase the health systems’ capacities to prevent, prepare for, detect and respond to public health emergencies.

Towards a resilient health sector

“While the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the shortcomings of health systems worldwide, it also highlighted the potential of collaborative action and what can be achieved when we join forces,” said WHO/Europe’s Regional Director, Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge. “This wide-ranging EU-WHO project has had a profound impact – lives were saved, and foundations built for truly resilient health-care systems that can weather future public health emergencies.”

In its second year, the EU-WHO initiative continues to play a pivotal role in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic and in fostering longer-term resilience of the health sector in the Eastern Partnership region.

The project is part of broader EU-WHO/Europe collaboration in the 6 Eastern Partnership countries, building on synergies between the WHO European Programme of Work and the EU’s ‘Eastern Partnership beyond 2020: Reinforcing Resilience – an Eastern Partnership that delivers for all’.