UNITE – The Global Parliamentarians Network to End Infectious Diseases

Interview with Amish Laxmidas, Executive Director at UNITE 

Infectious diseases continue to have a significant impact across the world, for example, in 2018, 36.9 million people globally were living with HIV. Now more than ever, with COVID-19, it has become clear that infectious diseases have a significant impact on global health. Infectious diseases have been identified by the UN Sustainable Development Goals as a major cause of morbidity and mortality that needs to be addressed in order to improve health worldwide.

 

UNITE is a non-profit, non-partisan global network of current and former members of parliament, congresses and senates from multinational, national, state and regional state parliaments who are committed to eliminating infectious diseases as a public health threat by the year 2030. UNITE has a horizontal approach to infectious diseases and their key disease areas include Malaria, TB, HIV/AIDS, neglected tropical diseases, viral Hepatitis and water-borne diseases. This work is complemented by cross-cutting themes such as universal health coverage (UHC), key populations, digital health, and drug policy.

 

UNITE is leading the fight against infectious diseases to eliminate them as global health threats!

 

Amish is currently sharing the vision of ending infectious diseases as global health threat through unified political leadership. 

 

Born and raised in Lisbon, and with a strong love for his Indian origins, Amish is a firm believer in the power of networking, partnerships, and community, which led him to transition from UNITE’s Head of Strategic Partnerships to UNITE’s Executive Director in January 2021. 


Q1.Welcome Amish Laxmidas, please can you introduce yourself and highlight your roles and responsibilities at UNITE?

I am currently leading UNITE’s mission as Executive Director. UNITE aims to ensure that political leadership is the most important determinant to health and wellbeing for all. The role of UNITE consists of organising a coalition of Parliamentarians, who are responsible for leading political change and utilising their legislative tools to advance better health outcomes for all. 


While working at UNITE, I obtained an Executive Master’s in Management with a specialisation in Leadership from Católica Lisbon School of Business and Economics as well as being granted the opportunity to be president of the Youth Atlantic Treaty Association in Brussels – a public diplomacy NGO that connects euro-Atlantic networks in promotion of global democratic values. 

 

Outside of UNITE, I have also held pro-bono roles at the House of India and I am currently consulting the Hindu Community of Portugal in developing a deeper engagement within the Portuguese National Government, political parties and civil society. 


Q2. How did you start working at UNITE? Can you tell us a bit more about your journey? 

I was previously working in the private sector, at a consulting firm that specialised in business-to-business opportunities between Portuguese companies and Africa. I have always had an  international mission, and I was lucky enough to engage in some work in Brussels where I met our Founder and President, Ricardo Baptista Leite, MD, MP, who was already mentioning issues such as bioterrorism and global health security. Little did I know that security, international relations, and international affairs had so much to do with global health! This made it clear to me that there was, and still is, an urgent need for people coming from social sciences to get involved in global health. I previously acted as Head of Strategic Partnerships at UNITE but since have become Executive Director, as previously mentioned.

Ricardo Baptista Leite, MD, MP, UNITE’s Founder and President
 

Q3.Please tell us more about UNITE. What are your main objectives?

The main objective is really to change the world. From what I have experienced, everyone in the global health field has a shared purpose. UNITE was founded by Ricardo, a politician in Portugal but he is also a physician by training, which is rare to see in Parliament. UNITE follows a path that is embedded with scientific-based evidence, but also policy making, in order to achieve changes in health systems, we need to be able to see and work on the bigger picture.

 

UNITE’s formal mission is to tackle infectious diseases as a global health threat, however the bigger purpose is to change the way people see health and happiness. It is the power that members of Parliament have that leads to real change. UNITE’s network has a broad view on infectious diseases, not a vertical approach, but rather a horizontal approach with a global network and platform of policymakers from high, middle- and low-income countries. Our main objective is to utilise the tools that Parliamentarians have because you need to have the policymakers and representatives mobilised and active in order to catalyse change.

UNITE'S FORMAL MISSION IS TO TACKLE INFECTIOUS DISEASES AS A GLOBAL HEALTH THREAT, HOWEVER THE BIGGER PURPOSE IS TO CHANGE THE WAY PEOPLE SEE HEALTH AND HAPPINESS.

-Amish Laxmidas

Q4.What is your geographic coverage at UNITE?

We have over 170 members across the globe and we represent more than 70 countries, which has been key to our success and a quick turnaround over the past three years. We have divided the globe into 10 regions that we call ‘chapters’, including a Western and Central European chapter, a Central African chapter, and an Eastern and Southern African chapter. Each chapter has a Chair, who is a leading Parliamentarian who is the face of the organisation for that region. The chair will assess the key policy barriers that are present in that region and identify the best way for UNITE to intervene. 


UNITE has always been very keen on making sure it’s a network where members of Parliament from different countries, different cultural realities, different backgrounds and even different ideologies come together and work on a shared goal. Our board is made up of nine leading Parliamentarians and we are proud to say our board is approx. 60-70% women, including individuals from countries such as Kenya, Ghana, India, Argentina, Georgia, Philippines and Germany. We have had recent interest from Liberia and Namibia and our current aim is to recruit a key champion in the US and Canadian region. So it is a very diverse and dynamic board set-up.


Q5.UNITE’s ‘Priority Infectious Disease Areas’ include the following: vaccination, Sustainable development goals (sdgs), drug policy, vulnerable populations, outbreak preparedness,response and antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

Q5.1) The emergence of COVID-19 illustrates the need for better outbreak preparedness and response (one of your key focal areas). What impact has the COVID-19 pandemic had on your work? How can UNITE’s work ensure that we do not repeat the same mistakes? What are the key learnings?

 

Q5.2) AMR is largely a neglected global health threat. In 2019, the UN Ad hoc Interagency Coordination Group on Antimicrobial Resistance estimated that drug-resistant diseases could cause 10 million deaths each year by 2050. What more needs to be done to prevent AMR from becoming a global crisis? How can we re-focus the spotlight on AMR when currently COVID-19 and other pandemic-like threats have taken full focus?

 

COVID-19…that really was a game changer for us. COVID-19 put us and our work on the radar in understanding that UNITE and other parliamentary networks hold enormous power. A key example is with the lockdowns, when Parliamentarians had to approve lockdown measures and provide non-medical answers to the pandemic. It showed us that we needed to develop a new way of communicating with our members of Parliament, explain the actions of the key partners and develop a new strategy in order to engage key organisations such as Gavi and the World Bank. It was an opportunity to make sure that the old ways of conducting policy change had been accelerated and made more dynamic. Now Parliamentarians and UNITE have a seat at the table in the decision-making process.

 

In terms of not making the same mistakes again, it really depends on holding national governments accountable, holding accountability to our representatives and understanding the power that they possess. Global health has become a key area, it is amazing to see heads of states in various countries discussing vaccination rollouts and how much funding they will give to these organisations. So, I think we should not repeat the same mistakes by understanding that this is important, and it is not an issue we should brush aside, it is an important topic that cannot follow the same path of the HIV pandemic – we cannot leave it unfinished. Political leaders now need to understand that they should be held accountable.


Essentially, UNITE serves as a gatekeeper between Parliamentarians such as Gavi and other key organisations. Parliamentarians are at the interface between national governments, civil society, philanthropic organisations, international organisations, media and the private sector. They are the ones that are truly elected, they have this uniqueness, this under-utilised tool of representing the people. It is about working with all the stakeholders and working across the board. It is down to the international parliaments to say to the policymakers that we need to do more, it is about working together and across all areas to translate words into action.


From a UNITE perspective, we have been working with several partners that are doing the in-depth reviews of the policy changes needed, it is up to Parliamentarians, particularly in the European region where we have been working with key members of Parliament, to ensure AMR strategies continue to be developed. It is the responsibility of members of Parliament to ensure that this translates into action in the AMR space. At UNITE, it is our job to make sure that the table of members of Parliament is always filled with many topics, such as AMR in order to ensure that these vital topics are not overlooked or neglected.

Q6. Neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) are mentioned as one as your top focus areas. 

Q6.1) Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) have been the focus of media attention recently, most notably due to the UK’s withdrawal of critical funding which left the WHO to state that ‘millions of the world’s poorest are at risk of neglected tropical diseases due to government aid cuts’. NTDs such as elephantiasis, trachoma, river blindness, and intestinal worm infections – are virtually non-existent in advanced economies. But among people living in extreme poverty, they are the most common infections. About a billion people worldwide – including more than 750 million people living below the World Bank poverty line of $1.90 per day – suffer from NTDs every year. Moreover, the World Health Assembly which commenced on the 24 May 2021 and concluded on the 31 May 2021, passed a decision to invite Member States and relevant stakeholders to celebrate January 30th as ‘World Neglected Tropical Diseases Day’. So how can UNITE ensure that we break the cycle of neglect when it comes to NTDs? Can you highlight some of your work in this area? What do you think about having a dedicated day to recognise NTDs?

 

Dedicating a day in the global health agenda is very important, we need to end the neglect. NTDs are almost always poverty related diseases and clearly an issue of global health equity and social injustice, and therefore we need to address it like that. It also a political issue, the countries with the highest rates of NTDs are also the countries where there is a lack of scientific knowledge. This does allow us to hope that change is possible, since political leadership is an achievable factor to fix.


I think there also needs to be a multidisciplinary approach to NTDs, we need collaboration between scientific and educational ministries, sustainable development agencies and most importantly primary sectors, who are key to changing the paradigm here. Utilising societal and cultural tools to get to the hard-to-reach populations is key, therefore it is not only a health-related issue at this stage, but also a development and social issue. UNITE has played a critical role, such as working alongside policy researchers and other organisations in applying and mobilising reports on the tools needed for key NTD burdened countries and thus implementing findings. The reports have suggested that there is still a lack of funding for research and development in these countries, therefore highlighting this as a social issue that needs to be urgently addressed.

Q7.What will your key activities be for the rest of 2021 and beyond? 

We will be launching our second virtual summit by the end of the year. A 3-day event (6th/7th/8th December) will take place with different partners who are concerned with the various diseases that UNITE focuses on. Sessions will involve policymakers and will focus on three topics:

 

1. Building back better our responses post pandemic

2. What are the key barriers for the global HIV, TB, Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases responses, post pandemic

3. Science, innovation, research and development including digital health

 

UNITE is also working very closely with the Parliamentary network of the World Bank and IMF in order to organise a coalition in the global health field.

Q8.What would overarching success look like for UNITE?

Of course it would be having members of Parliament approve important legislation that UNITE has worked hard on. We also need to push for increased political leadership to ensure that something like COVID-19 does not happen again. I would like to add that UNITE are here to collaborate with civil society, the private sector, international organisations, governments and everyone else because global health needs UNITE, and UNITE needs to deliver, so you can count on us for more action within the field. After all, simply changing one person’s life will then lead to changing many people’s lives!

Global Health needs UNITE, and UNITE needs to deliver, so you can count on us for more action within the field

-Amish Laxmidas

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