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World Health Day: Alumna strengthens remote community health systems during the COVID-19 pandemic

Posted: 1 April 2021

Bangladesh, Alumni, COVID-19, Impact,

COVID-19 has amplified healthcare disparities in resource-constrained and underserved communities. Like many other frontline public health workers, Australia Awards alumna Elsie Hasdak is playing a vital role in building community capacity and facilitating healthcare services in such communities. She is promoting maternal and newborn health, as well as mental wellbeing, among rural adolescents affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in some of the most remote areas in Bangladesh.

Elsie belongs to the Santal tribe, one of the largest indigenous communities in northern Bangladesh. As a member of an indigenous community, she has always been driven to serve marginalised communities. After completing a Master of Public Health at Flinders University in 2014 with the support of an Australia Awards Scholarship, Elsie began working as a Community Health and Development Adviser at the non-governmental organisation World Mission Prayer League (also known as LAMB Hospital). In this position, she played a crucial role in planning, implementing and continually improving LAMB Hospital’s initiatives for adolescents, women and children.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, many health facilities in rural Bangladesh temporarily closed their doors to general patients and pregnant women. However, LAMB Hospital was an exception.

Having worked in rural communities for more than 20 years, Elsie has an intimate understanding of healthcare challenges experienced in these areas. She has been proud to contribute to the hospital’s ongoing COVID-19 response and to continue to provide inclusive care to all, in collaboration with LAMB Hospital’s management team.

“As a public health professional, I believe that it is a moral responsibility to do my part to address the challenges, together with fellow professionals,” she says, emphasising her desire to “help the people in need”.

Elsie now works as Monitoring, Planning and Reporting Adviser. In this role, she has visited rural communities and witnessed challenges faced in those areas. She has found that people in these communities are not actively seeking healthcare due to fears about COVID-19. Similarly, most pregnant women are afraid of going to community hospitals for regular check-ups—a situation that could lead to an increased number of home deliveries in these villages.

These observations led Elsie to introduce a range of initiatives in these rural communities. “I facilitated access to healthcare services,” she says. “I focused on behavioural health and community-based services to increase health awareness, which is crucial to enhance individual and community capacity.”

Elsie helped in resource mobilisation and planning, and managed training for community skilled birth attendants and health workers. These frontline health workers provided COVID-19 awareness and counselling to pregnant women through phone calls and encouraged those with high-risk pregnancies to visit clinics for check-ups.

Training for health professionals was a core component of the support that was required. Elsie and her team trained 40 birth attendants in using personal protective equipment to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and in following safety guidelines for Union Health and Family Welfare Centres and Community Safe Delivery Units in Dinajpur and Rangpur districts. As a result of Elsie’s training, the community skilled birth attendants continued to provide care for pregnant women and perform normal deliveries even during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in Bangladesh.

Australia Awards alumna Elsie Hasdak conducting a health training for adolescent facilitators in Dinajpur district in June 2020

As the pandemic progressed, rumours and myths about the disease caused anxiety and confusion among the community. Elsie believes that proper training for health workers is crucial so that they are able to share factual and accurate information. She trained her team to build their capacity, knowledge and readiness to address misinformation about COVID-19. During the lockdown between March and May 2020, Elsie also conducted an online ‘Trauma Healing Course’ for community counsellors, enabling them to provide emotional and mental health support to communities and field workers. Then, in June 2020, she provided training on emotional and mental health to 42 field workers. These workers are now cascading the training by teaching adolescents in rural communities about coping strategies, mental health, and sexual and reproductive health-related issues.

“I have trained and guided the health field workers to prepare them to conduct health promotion and disease prevention interventions. Promoting everyday preventative actions is one of the main strategies to prevent the further spread of COVID-19,” Elsie says.

Elsie also worked on COVID-19 relief operations with the association of Australia Awards alumni from indigenous communities in Bangladesh. She and other alumni supported at least 50 poor indigenous families in two sub-districts of Dinajpur using the funding provided to the association by the Australian Government. The alumni also trained these families in healthy practices, such as handwashing and proper health-seeking actions during the pandemic.

Elsie’s education in Australia broadened her knowledge of public health, and particularly her understanding of socio-environmental factors that influence human health and wellbeing. This knowledge has been invaluable in responding to rural and indigenous communities’ public health needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Australia Awards supported me to develop my strengths as a public health professional, particularly in the field of community health and development,” says Elsie. “The knowledge I gained on global public health and multicultural competence helped me to take proper public health initiatives and improved the quality of service delivery in rural areas.”