Each Global Symposium on Health Systems Research is a major process of engagement and community building within and beyond the Health Systems Global (HSG) membership society. They represent a two-year process of consultation and mobilization with the aim of building capacities, partnerships and networks regionally and globally that will be sustained and built upon into the future.
From identifying host partners and shaping the themes, to designing the program, reviewing over 3000 abstracts and sessions proposals, and managing logistics, it is a considerable endeavour. It demonstrates the commitment and coordination of many people who volunteer their time and energy across time zones, who share HSG’s principles and vision of globally connected health systems research and policy communities to attain better health, equity and wellbeing.
For many of us, the Global Symposium is far more than just a conference.
In light of the current global pandemic of novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and following much careful consideration given the significant efforts outlined above, the Board of Health Systems Global has made the decision to undertake consultations and planning with the aim of transforming the Sixth Global Symposium on Health Systems Research (HSR2020), scheduled to take place in Dubai from 8 to 12 November 2020, into a global virtual event.
The HSG Board and Secretariat will also be closely monitoring the changing circumstances over the coming months with the possibility of hosting a smaller concurrent face-to-face meeting in Dubai for the Eastern Mediterranean region (EMR) and those who can travel to Dubai during 10 to 12 November. For the face-to-face meeting to take place in Dubai in November, several essential conditions will need to be met, including travel restrictions to Dubai being lifted; travel restrictions to return to other countries being lifted; the ability to convene a face-to-face meeting whilst assuring safety of participants; and HSG’s confidence in its ability, with partners, to programmatically link a face-to-face meeting with the virtual Global Symposium program. Should these conditions not be met, the face-to-face meeting in the EMR will be adapted and incorporated into the virtual event.
This has been an incredibly difficult process of deliberation because of the uncertainty around the course that the pandemic will take and because such huge amounts of time and effort have already been invested by the Local Organizing Committee, the Program Working Group (PWG) and Scientific Committee, members of the Executive Committee, the HSR2020 Fundraising Committee, supporters and co-sponsors of the Symposium, the HSG Secretariat team, and many other HSG members and partners.
PWG members, under the fantastic leadership of Fadi El Jardali and Sara Bennett, Scientific Committee and Thematic Working Group members, have been outstanding in developing innovative ideas for the Symposium and scientifically curating thousands of diverse submissions. There has been no lack of commitment in mustering these phenomenal efforts to date. But no one anticipated COVID-19 or the devastating implications it has had.
We are mindful of how important the opportunity of hosting the Global Symposium is for the EMR. This has been rightly reinforced by our committed local host partners, led by the Mohammed bin Rashid School of Government and American University of Beirut, and HSR2020 Executive Committee members.
The HSG Board assessed a number of options, including postponement and cancellation, and their implications for participant safety and access, as well as the associated financial and organizational challenges. Even if we were able to postpone until sometime in 2021, it would still not be the size and scale of the Symposium that we usually organize. For multiple reasons, it is highly unlikely that we will be back to convening global conferences with 2500 people even towards the end of 2021.
Although we are only six months away from HSR2020, we believe that taking this decision now will give us enough time to build on and adapt the tremendous amounts of high-quality work invested in the current scientific program. We will seek to develop a focused and engaging virtual experience based on principles of effective and inclusive digital convening. These include harnessing the strengths of digital technology whilst recognizing where it is more challenging to replicate face-to-face interactions in digital form. The HSR2020 theme will be used to embrace new thinking in response to COVID-19.
We have a golden opportunity to do things differently and explore what convening virtually means, which will have lasting implications for all our future Symposia, including how we harness digital approaches to engage wider audiences – people within and beyond the health policy and systems community who were previously unable to participate in the Global Symposia – whilst striving to maintain the EMR identity of the Symposium.
The way forward is full of challenges, but we believe making this decision puts us in the position to take advantage of some unexpected circumstances, rather than allowing events to be dictated by a highly uncertain global context. This way, we can be true to the values and principles of our Society, which I know is what those of us on the HSG Board and so many HSG members and partners are striving for.
In the coming weeks and months, HSG will share more details about the nature and shape of the virtual Global Symposium, including program formats and means of participation. We look forward to your input into this reconfiguration and welcome your suggestions and ideas via HSG_Secretariat@curatio.com.
We hope you will be excited and engaged by a transformed HSR2020 and want to be a part of it at a time when, perhaps more than ever, we need to learn from and collaborate with one another against a shared global threat to health, wellbeing and social justice.
Asha George, HSG Chair, on behalf of the HSG Board