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  • Writer's pictureDr. Yakama Manty Jones

Join the COVID-19 Fight but with a ‘Systems’ view to collaboration

Updated: Jun 19, 2020

Crises have a way of bringing people together. It is probably our innate instinct to not only survive but also to thrive. Over the years, individuals and institutions in both the formal and informal sectors have contributed to response efforts in times of crises. This remains true for the ongoing battle against COVID-19, especially across the health, economic and social sectors.

It is not uncommon for someone to wonder what drives different people to join these efforts as we often hear the word ‘collaboration’. Sometimes, their jobs require them to, whilst in other cases, it’s just an immense need to help others. Some do it for profit, others for fame (No side- eyes). It’s in reality, a fact of life -different things motivate different people. What is important, is how these efforts being thrown into the COVID Response Hat,’ collectively alleviate the impact of this pandemic on humanity and stops the COVID-19 virus in its tracks.

No matter what motivates us, we should think about our contributions in terms of ‘Systems’. A ‘System’ is a “seamless linkage of all the elements that define it” (Porter-O’Grady, Hawkins, and Parker, 1997, p. 106)[1]. Our interventions must, therefore, be for collective and sustainable success. A system works differently when the elements of the system are considered as independent parts compared to when the elements are viewed as connected parts of the whole experience.

What are these elements? They often vary from sector to sector: People, Leadership, Management, Objectives, Key Result Areas, Strategy, Policy, Planning, Implementation, Service Delivery, Communications, Financing, Data, Technology, Information Management, People, Products, Tools, Processes, Functions, Structures, Monitoring, Environment, Evaluation are key components of the Ecosystem. Regardless of the fact that there are a lot of things to consider, they are essential pieces of the ‘System’ and they all come with their complexities and unpredictability.

COVID-19 is our reality. It has forever changed life as we knew it. In making a decision to support this COVID-19 fight, let’s take a more holistic approach. Let us consider the various interdependencies and contingencies in deciding on what we want to and can add to the ‘Response Hat’. Everyone cannot be a high-level decision-maker and we definitely do not have an endless stream of resources. We cannot, however, remain ‘Arm-chair Experts’ in the COVID-19 fight. If we take aim to firstly understand the overarching goal, what works, for whom and why we’ll be on track to acquiring a better understanding of what prevails. In this line, we can then be in a better position to pivot our interventions for the collective good and get the ‘how’ right.

COVID-19 response interventions globally are a mix of lessons learnt from previous health and non-health crises, innovation, research, collaboration, sacrifice and my personal favourite…. an injection of female leadership[2]. Yes, women leaders are doing disproportionately better at handling the pandemic.[3] These interventions are not all perfect, but together we can get beat the pandemic! Nonetheless, when we design our interventions, there is a need to view COVID-19 beyond the next 'incubation period 'of infected persons or the next 'lockdown'. We need to think 'Strategically', 'Big Picture', 'Long Term' and 'Systems'. Success is in the 'Howness’!! It’s not ‘one-size fits all[4], which could have lethal consequences[5].

Governments, International Development Organisations, Local Non-Governmental Organisations, Large Businesses, MSMEs, Universities, Think Tanks both local and international and Individuals are collectively contributing to this fight. In Sierra Leone, we are implementing a COVID-19 Health Response Plan[6] and an Economic Response Plan[7]. An Education Response Plan is currently under development. Strategic Task Forces[8] are also providing evidence-based advice to Decision Makers, including the Presidency. Government, Universities and Think Tanks, both local and international, are undertaking research to guide decision making. 

The Government[9] is collaborating with international[10] and local development partners in terms of funding[11], technical assistance, and implementation to address cross-cutting issues. Dialogue and engagement with the Private Sector are central to the response. Technology and innovation[12] are being leveraged not only by the Government but also by the private sector. Zoom meetings are the new normal! (Zoom etiquette……hmmm….. an article for another day). Entrepreneurs are adjusting their business models to support communities[13]. Social media[14] influencers and different Activists are also doing their part especially with messaging on handwashing and the ‘Mask Up’[15] campaign[16]. There are no words to describe the value that frontline Health and Social workers bring to this fight. Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora[17] are doing their bit too!!

Nonetheless, the support to COVID-19 space is not saturated!! We need more hands-on-deck. We need more people thinking in terms of 'Systems' not only for the response but also the recovery!!! If you are thinking of what you could possibly do, spend a short while examining what currently exists and craft your approach to add value to the ‘System’. I’ll share a few of the 10 Basic Tenets of Tim Porter-O’Grady’s Whole-Systems theory (Porter O'Grady et al., 1997) to help guide you in the design process:

  • Each of the components of a system supports the whole system.

  • A problem in any one part of the system affects the whole system.

  • A system always ‘lives’ where it provides its services or produces its products.

  • All roles either serve the customer or serve someone who does.

  • Outcomes always define the value of the process. A function is subordinate to its purpose.

  • All members of a system are stakeholders. The structure of the system must facilitate the effectiveness of every stakeholder.

It is greatly important to state that we need more women in this fight. The World Economic Forum and other international agencies think so too![18] Whilst we fight this battle in a constantly evolving situation, let us not lose sight of the fact that it is another opportunity for cross-sectoral and cross-disciplinary learning. 

We need to keep learning, un-learning, re-learning, contextualising and innovating. Together, let’s keep doing, with a ‘Systems Lens’. Success lies in the ‘how’.

PS: Don’t forget to take care of your mental health.


Your Life-Long Learner


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