By Ann Marie Kimball, MD, MPH, Member of the Rotary Club of Bainbridge Island; World Community Service chair; and member of the Rotary Foundation Cadre of Technical Advisers
Rotary is engaging vigorously in the fight against COVID-19. I am honored to serve on a new task force Rotary International has created, but it’s also caused me to think about our role as Rotarians. How can we continue our progress toward polio eradication in the time of COVID-19?
Rotary embodies two fundamental concepts in Global Health Security:
1) “Global to Local” or “glocal” – a span of activities which reach from the highest level of global cooperation to the most local activities centered on individuals, families and communities.
2) “All of Society”– the call and response for pandemic preparedness and other global threats. Such threats impact the whole of society and the response consequently must involve all of society.
With our 1.2 million members and 35,000 clubs worldwide, we have a profound role to play to vanquish COVID-19 at home and abroad. The organization also has a huge stake in success. Polio eradication and childhood vaccination efforts are under threat. These signature programs have faltered in critical areas such as Pakistan and Afghanistan with childhood vaccination levels dropping in many other countries due to the pandemic. As Rotary and other partners worked with government to respond, the pause in vaccinations has ended and progress is once again underway. We have a dual charge: Assure the success of polio eradication and combat the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. The two are inextricably linked.
Global to Local (GLOCAL)
At the global level, polio eradication has orchestrated a broad partnership over decades to assure success worldwide. Polio cannot be eradicated until it is vanquished in all countries. Our partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative have worked together tirelessly to achieve this end. From surveillance to vaccine procurement to immunization campaigns, the program has built an infrastructure which is now central not only to polio but also to the pandemic response.
However, local response is as important in the fight against COVID-19. Our members and clubs are as central to success as they have been in fighting polio. The assets we bring to the table are powerful.
Truth telling (The Four-Way Test)
In every club I have visited during my decades in Rotary, members recite The Four-Way Test. It’s our common pledge. I have repeated it with fellow Rotarians from Singapore to Cuernavaca to Seattle. It’s our tradition of honesty – Rotarians are known as truth tellers. We eschew politics and partisanship and instead seek the greater good in our community participation, and our projects at home and abroad. This creates trust.
Science tells us that the kind of sensitive communication needed to assure public health messaging and vaccine acceptance is a dialogue among all parties. This is Rotary’s traditional, apolitical “sweet spot,” and this work will be crucial to assure we reach a level of handwashing, social distancing, and vaccination against COVID-19 to protect populations.
Professor Heidi J. Larson has been studying vaccine hesitancy since her own experience with UNICEF in Northern Nigeria in 2003 when vaccines for polio were refused because of rumors. In her recent book “Stuck: How Vaccine Rumors Start – and Why They Don’t Go Away” she attributes rumors and their persistence to everyday people feeling left out of the important conversations about vaccine safety. Often scientists and other authorities do not find the common language to give straightforward information. They also need to listen. We need to do both: provide the best information in common language and listen carefully to respond in the most respectful, honest way to misinformation.
As a physician, I live this problem both in direct patient care and in talking about pandemics. Historically my profession has used Latin and highly complex vocabulary to describe illness and cures. It is only recently in medicine that patients and their doctors are seen as a “team.”
This came home to me in 1983 when I found myself hospitalized in the 97th Army Hospital in Germany for pregnancy complications. After the doctors made their rounds on the ward, the enlisted women would crowd into our room (I shared it with an Army nurse) for a translation session. What did their doctor actually say? How could we put it into language that was comprehensible? I realized how far my profession had to go to honor the importance of creating communication and trust with our patients. While we have come along way, truth telling and careful listening will continue to be critical in the fight against COVID-19.
Rotary walks the walk
Rotarians are also people of action. The old adage “actions speak louder than words” is true. I experienced this when I was leading national program support for PAHO. I visited one of our Central American member countries to plan their HIV/AIDS prevention program. AIDS was a profoundly feared disease – it was a mortal infection. A patient in the major hospital had been there for some weeks. The staff was afraid to touch him for fear of getting the disease. While I explained that HIV was not transmitted casually, it was not until I touched the patient, turning him and helping to make his bed that my message was believed. We need to walk the walk – not just talk the talk.
What is “our walk” with COVID-19? As vaccine campaigns roll out Rotarians are coming forth to volunteer. Members who are medics can help administer vaccine shots. There are many other jobs in setting up vaccination sites that clubs are stepping up for: reception, handling logistics and data, and doing patient observation.
At our club, the Rotary Club of Bainbridge Island, we found our city and county coordinators overwhelmed with inquiries and scheduling. We organized to assure reliability of volunteers, assist with clerical and administrative tasks, and to take the load off our city and county staff as much as possible. We are not alone. In Rotary Showcase are literally thousands of activities to combat the pandemic undertaken by our clubs across the world.
Modelling and promoting safe behaviors (masking, handwashing, and social distancing) continue to be critical. We need to practice as well as “preach” these practices. A number of clubs have provided handwashing stations or materials to make it easier for their communities to follow the guidelines. Getting vaccinated when it is our turn is as important as promoting vaccination for others.
Whole of Society
All pandemics are seen primarily as “health” events. While health experts have a key role to play, pandemic threats call for a whole of society response. All of our areas of focus for grants have implications for or are impacted by COVID-19.
Our membership is broad and inclusive. Virtually every sector of society is represented. Everyone has a contribution to make from making masks to logistics to advocating for equity in policy circles.
Rotary has a heart
As our organization rolls out its strategic plan over the coming months, we bring another important piece to the effort. The pandemic has taken many many lives and sickened many many people. Rotary club friendships help. We can bring comfort to one another, check on our older members regularly and help our younger members navigate joblessness, financial stress, and the intense demands of at home schooling and childcare. This could well be our most important contribution.
As we continue the fight to end polio, we are finding that global health security becomes important to assure our program resiliency. The strength and determination of our membership is likely to be the most important asset we bring to the fight.
Editor’s Note: Share your efforts to promote COVID-19 vaccinations and stop the spread of the disease on Rotary Showcase.