The Health and Humanitarian Logistics conference, HHL, this year began with an opening speech by Dr. Pinar Keskinocak of Georgia Tech and Dr. Julie Swan representing NC State University. From the beginning, Dr. Keskinocak focused her speech on outlining the growing challenges associated with meeting fundamental human needs and responding to healthcare emergencies this year. In particular, the speech evolved around the unique challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, especially the disproportionate burden that the pandemic has placed on low-income and vulnerable populations and the disruptions in the demand and supply chains due to the virus. The ‘zoom microphone’ was then handed over to Dr. Julie Swan, who provided a brief history of the HHL conference since its foundations in 2009 at Georgia Tech University all the way to more recent HHL events in Germany, Malaysia and Rwanda. According to Dr. Swan’s statistics, 40 countries across more than 200 different organizations were represented this year. 

Finally, The UPS Foundation President Ed Martinez joined the conference and began his keynote address, delivered together with the CARE USA President and CEO Michelle Nunn. Mr. Martinez began his speech by saying: ‘we are at a very serious moment in our history, certainly in our generation’. He then went on to discuss previous epidemics, particularly the 2014 Ebola crisis in Western Africa and how the Ebola response shaped a Global Health Security Agenda Supply Chain working group, which would prove extremely beneficial in the subsequent response to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Mr. Martinez, it was particularly the relationships, partnerships and trust UPS had prepositioned with its UN partners in 2014 that allowed them to better respond to the COVID-19 crisis since its onset in Chinese Wuhan. Then, Ms. Nunn pointed out the importance of the corporate sphere in fighting the current pandemic and the importance of building coalitions among private players. In relation to private party involvement, Mr. Martinez brought up a recent project called the Humanitarian Dashboard which is being developed by UPS in cooperation with Google and Deloitte with the aim of ensuring fast and coordinated response to future worldwide crises. 

By far, the largest part of the address was dedicated to the distribution of a potential Covid-19 vaccine in the future. As Mr. Martinez pointed out: “the world vaccinates about 400 million people every year and so the task the world is seeking to undertake now of vaccinating literally billions of people against Covid-19 is truly an incredibly challenging task to do”. As for the way to achieve the vaccination of expected 2 Billion people, he stressed the importance of innovation and collective effort. For example, one particular challenge he sees is the transportation of the vaccine in frozen form, the so-called ‘cold chain’. Up until now, freezer farms have been set up mostly exclusively in the US and Europe, whereas cold chain doesn’t exist in many developing countries. One potential solution to the cold-chain problem, according to Mr. Martinez, might involve the adoption of drone technology. Such technology is already being used in Rwanda in a variety of fields including the delivery of blood products and vaccines to remote health centers by UPS in partnership with Zipline and could be extended to many other developing countries. 

Despite the clear challenges associated with the vaccine distribution, Mr. Martinez ended the keynote speech on a positive note by saying that “if we are able to build an equitable health infrastructure now to distribute the Covid-19 vaccine, then this infrastructure will be very beneficial in the long term”.