A question I often hear is, “What are you most looking forward to after lockdown?” My answer relates to something that happened just as the pandemic was taking off in the United States last year: FHI Clinical was awarded the oversight of the Partnership for Research on Ebola Vaccines in Liberia (PREVAIL) Network and had to recruit, hire and train over 200 staff in Liberia to manage the PREVAIL work. Due to travel restrictions and the unknown risks of COVID, we had to do this remotely.
While COVID-19 is a global pandemic, infection rates and lockdown restrictions have varied by country. As the pandemic spread rapidly in the United States, our U.S.-based staff were fortunate enough to have the infrastructure and opportunity to work remotely. Although we miss seeing our colleagues in person, it has been a successful experiment in remote work.
Liberia, on the other hand, was able to keep businesses open, as there have been approximately 2,000 documented cases of COVID-19 and fewer than a hundred deaths in the country. However, given their past experience with Ebola, the Liberian government has taken precautionary measures to address COVID-19.
We started recruiting our Liberian team in April, and the majority started working in July. We made the most of the bans on international travel and welcomed the Liberia staff with emails and global video conferences. In October, when it was possible to travel, we sent a small group of staff from our headquarters to meet with some of the Liberian team. These in-person connections are important because our Liberian team is not only made up of scientists, physicians and nurses, it also includes drivers, security guards and maintenance staff who may not have easy access to a computer and get most of their corporate news from bulletin boards or word of mouth. With safety protocols in place (such as quarantining, frequent COVID-19 testing, use of face masks and meeting outdoors), these in-person visits created a bridge between our Liberia and U.S. staff so that as colleagues we are more than just names on a bulletin board.
PREVAIL was formed in 2014 at the height of the West African Ebola outbreak. Since its establishment, PREVAIL has developed clinical research infrastructure across four sites in Liberia, John F. Kennedy Medical Center (JFKMC), Redemption Hospital, CH. Rennie Hospital and Duport Road Clinic, a research lab at Liberia Institute for Biomedical Research (LIBR), and an imaging suite at JFKMC. The maintenance of this research infrastructure is imperative given global pandemic threats, many of them native to West Africa (e.g. Ebola, yellow fever, Marburg and others).
So when someone asks me what I am looking forward to after lockdown, my answer is visiting our Liberian co-workers and thanking them for joining FHI Clinical. I am a strong believer that staff do not support management — management is there to support the staff. That’s why it’s important to me to visit our newest co-workers in person and show them gratitude and respect for the great work they do.
The PREVAIL Network was established through a collaboration between local Liberian and international organizations, including the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), the World Health Organization (WHO) and FHI Clinical. Read our PREVAIL Network brochure to learn how the network is providing sustainable research infrastructure to address diseases of public health importance.