UNICEF rep. hails Iran’s ‘strong primary healthcare system’

MNA – The UNICEF representative in Iran hailed the country’s “strong primary health care system”, saying the international body is negotiating with its partners to mobilize additional resources to help Iran fight COVID-19 pandemic.

“Iran’s strong primary healthcare system is considered an added value during such a health pandemic, and during natural disasters compared to countries with already fragile health systems,” Mandeep O’Brien said in an interview with Mehr News Agency.

“UNICEF Iran is negotiating with its partners to mobilize additional resources, reprioritize program interventions and redirect funds to ensure an effective response to the immediate and secondary impact of COVID-19 crisis in the country,” she added.

With the novel coronavirus wreaking havoc across the world, amicable and constructive cooperation between countries and international organizations has gained momentum.

Iran, like all others, has been battling with the new virus in cooperation with friendly countries as well as humanitarian bodies, such as UNICEF and Red Cross, to contain the pandemic, which has so far infected over 250,000 people and claimed the lives of over 12,000 in the country.

To shed light on the matter, we have reached out to Ms. O’Brian, the representative of UNICEF in Iran.

Here is the full text of her interview:

What is UNICEF’s general approach toward more-challenged countries in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic?

As we see nowadays worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended the lives of children and their families as health systems buckle, borders close, and schools and businesses shutter. As the number of COVID-19 cases soars, so do the needs of children and their families.

Under such difficult circumstances, UNICEF continues its ongoing programs in more than 190 countries, with experts across sectors working hard to provide practitioners, front-line responders and policymakers with the information they need to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and minimize its impact on children.

Let me outline some of UNICEF’s areas of support globally during the Covid-19 pandemic:

* Providing lifesaving information about handwashing and sanitation and procuring hygiene kits;

* Supplying Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) including gowns, masks, goggles and gloves to health workers, and other essential supplies to front line workers and children in challenging settings;

* Distributing emergency education kits and distance learning opportunities and supporting safe reopening of schools;

* Supporting affected children with psychosocial counselling;

* Facilitating socio-economic analysis and secondary impact of the crisis on children;

* And, supporting social protection programs for the most vulnerable children and families.

But in some countries, COVID-19 is bringing a new threat to the already battered situation – and has made delivering life-saving assistance even harder. For these countries, COVID-19 is a double emergency.

In Yemen, for example, UNICEF has been scaling up preparedness and response programs across the country, including providing clean water to communities in need, and distributing basic hygiene kits to empower and enable internally displaced families to protect themselves. UNICEF and partners have also reached more than half a million people across Yemen with information on physical distancing through house-to-house visits, and they are aiming to reach thousands of health workers with sensitization sessions on COVID-19.

My colleagues in UNICEF Syria office are working with their partners to reach Syrian children and their families with prevention messaging around COVID-19, and to provide clean water and distribute hundreds of thousands of bars of soap to help reduce the risk of COVID-19. With the support of partners, UNICEF has also reached hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees living in informal settlements through a door-to-door hand washing awareness campaign which included soap distribution.

How have UNICEF’s collaborations been with Iranian bodies, including Red Crescent and Health Ministry, amid the pandemic? (In fields, including financial aid, medical supply and training.)

In Iran, UNICEF has been supporting its government partners, mainly the Ministry of Health and Medical Education in its battle against the coronavirus outbreak. So far, in response to the request from the Ministry of Health, UNICEF has flown into the country a total of 63 tons of Personal Protective Equipment(PPE) items, which were distributed among hospitals admitting COVID-19 patients, under medical universities in several provinces including Gilan, Isfahan, Khouzestan, North Khorasan, Sistan and Balouchistan, East Azerbaijan, West Azerbaijan, Qom, Hamedan, Tehran and Alborz. The PPE items included surgical masks, gloves, coveralls, shields, aprons and goggles for doctors and nurses. Furthermore, in partnership with the Ministry of Health’s Mental Health department, UNICEF is producing information and communication material for children and families with messages on infection prevention, parenting skills, and coping with psychosocial pressures.

The pandemic has impacted multiple sectors, beyond the public health domain. Some examples of partnership with other sectors include:

* UNICEF is working with the Ministry of Sports & Youth and the Ministry of Health to address the psychosocial needs of affected adolescents and youth by providing equipment (headsets, mobile holders and telephone charge cards) and training to 110 mental health practitioners from 31 provinces as well as counselors of the 7 Ministry of Health-UNICEF supported Adolescent Wellbeing Clubs. The trained practitioners and counselors will provide psychosocial care and support via telephone counseling to young people and their parents through the current government run youth houses and well-being clubs.

* In response to the Government’s request, we are also providing other forms of assistance such as simple protective material, pulse oximeters and sanitizing items, to protect vulnerable children such as street and working children, children without effective caregivers including those in nurseries and special care centers across the country.

* With school closures due to COVID-19 pandemic, UNICEF continued to provide the Ministry of Education with technical support, by sharing internationally generated evidence and experiences in response to COVID-19 and, preparing a joint action plan for safe school reopening. UNICEF’s support includes production and dissemination of messages to teachers and parents around water, sanitation and hygiene, infection prevention and control as well as mental health and psychosocial messages. We are procuring water and sanitation equipment and supplies, targeting 200,000 children in 1,000 schools in five less advantaged provinces in the country.

* UNICEF is working with the Ministry of Cooperatives, Labor and Social Welfare (MoCLSW) on a conditional cash transfer model which will be injected to the basic social protection floor maintained by the Government. It entails soft conditionalities to improve access to basic social services, through for example, health insurance, nutrition vouchers, food baskets, and access to remote learning for at-risk children. This approach will complement the Government’s national program, targeting the three lowest deciles of incomes in a few provinces hit hard by COVID.

What are plans for continuing collaboration and giving aid to Iran to contain the pandemic?

In many countries including in Iran, UNICEF has adjusted its ongoing program of cooperation with the Government to address urgent needs of children, especially the most vulnerable affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Besides, successful resource mobilization and generous support from many donors, including EU, Japan, Denmark, Poland, as well as contributors to UNICEF Global Humanitarian Thematic Fund, UNICEF Iran is negotiating with its partners to mobilize additional resources, reprioritize program interventions and redirect funds to ensure an effective response to immediate and secondary impact of COVID-19 crisis in the country. UNICEF and its partners have several interventions in the pipeline in the areas of maternal and neonatal health, nutrition, school re-opening, support to street children, children with disabilities, children without effective care givers, and all vulnerable children including refugee children. UNICEF is joining up with other UN partners through a UN wide COVID-19 Response and Socio-economic Recovery Program.

The pandemic has impacted multiple sectors, beyond the public health domain. Some examples of partnership with other sectors include:

* UNICEF is working with the Ministry of Sports & Youth and the Ministry of Health to address the psychosocial needs of affected adolescents and youth by providing equipment (headsets, mobile holders and telephone charge cards) and training to 110 mental health practitioners from 31 provinces as well as counselors of the 7 Ministry of Health-UNICEF supported Adolescent Wellbeing Clubs. The trained practitioners and counselors will provide psychosocial care and support via telephone counseling to young people and their parents through the current government run youth houses and well-being clubs.

* In response to the Government’s request, we are also providing other forms of assistance such as simple protective material, pulse oximeters and sanitizing items, to protect vulnerable children such as street and working children, children without effective caregivers including those in nurseries and special care centers across the country.

* With school closures due to COVID-19 pandemic, UNICEF continued to provide the Ministry of Education with technical support, by sharing internationally generated evidence and experiences in response to COVID-19 and, preparing a joint action plan for safe school reopening. UNICEF’s support includes production and dissemination of messages to teachers and parents around water, sanitation and hygiene, infection prevention and control as well as mental health and psychosocial messages. We are procuring water and sanitation equipment and supplies, targeting 200,000 children in 1,000 schools in five less advantaged provinces in the country.

* UNICEF is working with the Ministry of Cooperatives, Labor and Social Welfare (MoCLSW) on a conditional cash transfer model which will be injected to the basic social protection floor maintained by the Government. It entails soft conditionalities to improve access to basic social services, through for example, health insurance, nutrition vouchers, food baskets, and access to remote learning for at-risk children. This approach will complement the Government’s national program, targeting the three lowest deciles of incomes in a few provinces hit hard by COVID.

What are plans for continuing collaboration and giving aid to Iran to contain the pandemic?

In many countries including in Iran, UNICEF has adjusted its ongoing program of cooperation with the Government to address urgent needs of children, especially the most vulnerable affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Besides, successful resource mobilization and generous support from many donors, including EU, Japan, Denmark, Poland, as well as contributors to UNICEF Global Humanitarian Thematic Fund, UNICEF Iran is negotiating with its partners to mobilize additional resources, reprioritize program interventions and redirect funds to ensure an effective response to immediate and secondary impact of COVID-19 crisis in the country. UNICEF and its partners have several interventions in the pipeline in the areas of maternal and neonatal health, nutrition, school re-opening, support to street children, children with disabilities, children without effective care givers, and all vulnerable children including refugee children. UNICEF is joining up with other UN partners through a UN wide COVID-19 Response and Socio-economic Recovery Program.

What measures has UNICEF taken to supply Iran with the medical needs of specific diseases, such as the EB children?

With the financial support of the Government of Germany, UNICEF procured and shipped to Iran specialized wound dressings for children suffering from EB, also known as butterfly disease. The request was made by the Ministry of Health and Medical Education to UNICEF as procurement of these dressings had been impacted by the sanctions.

The wound dressings, a product of the Swedish pharmaceutical company Mölnlycke, were procured by UNICEF Global Supply Hub in Copenhagen. This shipment of wound dressings which weighed around 5.8 tons, was delivered to the Ministry of Health for handover to Iran’s EB Home Foundation and further distribution among families with EB children in various provinces.

How do you describe Iran’s performance and its health sector’s infrastructure and potentials in the coronavirus battle, especially considering the other natural disasters Iran faces, such as floods and earthquakes?

Iran has a strong Primary Health Care system which is considered an added value during such a health pandemic, and during natural disasters compared to countries with already fragile health systems.

In countries with weak health systems, COVID-19 is causing disruptions in medical supply chains and straining financial and human resources. In these countries, visits to health care centers are declining due to lockdowns, curfews and transport disruptions, and as communities remain fearful of infection. In a commentary to the Lancet report, UNICEF has warned that these disruptions could result in potentially devastating increases in maternal and child deaths.

In Iran, UNICEF continues to support the Ministry of Health and Medical Education to strengthen its health system, maximize immunization coverage, preserve the delivery of essential health services, and support policies and financing to safeguard the health and nutrition of children during the response and recovery phases of COVID-19 pandemic.

Mandeep O’Brien has served in the UN, across three agencies, both in the field and headquarters in the course of the past 20 years. Before her posting in the Islamic Republic of Iran as UNICEF representative in July 2019, she was Deputy Director for the Public Partnerships Division in UNICEF Headquarters, responsible for providing strategic leadership and oversight of UNICEF’s global engagement in inter-agency and intergovernmental affairs.

Interview by: Morteza Rahmani