October to December

How We Pivoted In 2020

In 2020, our lives, communities and economies were upset in ways beyond what we could have imagined. Public health, normally an invisible web of protections, was thrust onto center stage daily.

At the start of the year, even before the virus had a name, Vital Strategies saw the pandemic that lay ahead. We knew we could not sit on the sidelines and had to harness our expertise and our global relationships with governments and partners around the world to help. We immediately positioned ourselves as “honest brokers” of the evolving science and risks, and we played a significant role in communicating about the pandemic via the media and our website and informing our partners as well. We also provided rapid response funds to 21 countries in those early days, and over the course of the year provided resources and technical assistance to 53 countries in Africa, Asia and the Americas.

At the same time, we knew that the pandemic made our other areas of work in noncommunicable diseases, overdose and injuries even more important. With the crisis dominating the news and overwhelming health systems, preventive measures for NCDs—such as cancer, heart disease, lung disease and diabetes—were being ignored, exacerbating the effects of the pandemic itself.

We forged ahead, making the case for why, even during the emergency response, we could not lose focus or lose ground on critical health issues such as tobacco control, air quality and food policies—all central drivers of noncommunicable diseases. We stressed the necessity of reducing the inequities created by poverty and racism, and their connection to these diseases and to overdose, all contributing to excess illness and death.

For this year’s annual report, we have created a timeline of 2020’s dramatic events together with a timeline of Vital Strategies’ actions and accomplishments. It is an opportunity to see behind the headlines to see the role of public health during the most severe pandemic the world had faced in more than a century.


The Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing recommends less reliance on incarceration as a response to substance-related violations.

The commission releases a report, produced with Vital Strategies funding and technical assistance, examining substance use as a driver of probation revocation and resentencing in Pennsylvania. The report is part of our Overdose Prevention Program’s ongoing work in U.S. states to apply an evidence-based public health approach, rather than a criminal justice approach, to substance use disorder. The report found that nearly one-third of all resentencing events for people sentenced to community supervision are attributable to substance use, costing Pennsylvania millions of dollars every year. The report recommends relying less on incarceration as a response to substance-related violations by people under supervision and strengthening access to evidence-based treatment. The Overdose Prevention Program also continued to address COVID-19 prevention for people who use drugs, releasing its Harm Reduction and COVID-19 toolkit in Spanish in October to reach Latinx people in the U.S., who have been especially hard hit by COVID-19 and are seeing a rise in overdose deaths. The toolkit, which was released in English in July, was received enthusiastically and promoted by harm reduction providers, state governments and the U.S. CDC.

Visit our COVID-19 Risk Communication Hub to learn about our downloadable adaptive resources to help keep communities safe.

Food policy victory in Brazil: Front-of-package nutrient warning labels approved.

After six years of extensive research and advocacy by Vital and its partners, and with the support of strong mass media campaigns, the National Health Surveillance Agency in Brazil (ANVISA) approved a new front-of-package labeling standard for packaged foods warning about high levels of salt, fat and sugar.

“Be the One: Stay Safe While Voting” campaign launches in Franklin County, Ohio.

The campaign urged voters to take 3 W (wear a mask, wash your hands, watch your distance) measures to reduce their risk of COVID-19 as they took to the polls during election season. It was one component of “Be the One,” a focus-group tested campaign that evokes personal responsibility and empowerment—values that have been shown to resonate and influence healthy behaviors.

WHO announces a new certification program for trans fat elimination.

Countries that enacted best practice policies will be invited to apply for the program, which is the first of its kind to address a risk factor for a noninfectious disease.

Lulu, a Project Safe Collective member, packs deliveries of bulk harm reduction supplies for people who use drugs. Project Safe Collective is a funded partner of Vital Strategies’ Overdose Prevention Program.


World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims is marked with candles, silence and sorrow.

These events have added significance in 2020, as the United Nations declares the Second Decade of Action for Road Safety for 2021-2030. From Argentina to Ghana to Viet Nam, city leaders gather to honor lives lost and commit to action on the day of remembrance. “The human losses that we register on our roads are a tragedy for the city,” said William Vallejo, the Secretary of Mobility in Cali, Colombia. “With this tribute, we acknowledge and remember all those who did not return home due to a road accident and reaffirm our commitment to continue working to improve the safety of the roads in Cali.” More than 1.35 million people die on the roads each year, and traffic crashes are the eighth-leading cause of death worldwide. With a $240 million reinvestment from Bloomberg Philanthropies, Vital’s Road Safety program expanded to 15 countries and 30 cities in 2020.

Road traffic crashes are an underecognized public health crisis. Learn more about our global road safety work on our blog.

Overdose Prevention Program partners launch harm reduction mobile outreach van in New Haven, Connecticut.

With funding from Vital Strategies to improve delivery of harm reduction services and supplies to sex workers, people who use drugs and people experiencing homelessness in Connecticut, the Sex Workers and Allies Network launched a mobile outreach van in the city of New Haven. Soon after, Vital and the government of New Haven formally announced a partnership to address the overdose epidemic in the city, making Connecticut the fourth U.S. state where the Overdose Prevention Program is addressing overdose using an evidence-based public health approach focused on harm reduction.

Hypertension control initiative begins in Nigeria.

In the face of rising mortality rates linked to hypertension, Nigeria’s Ministry of Health rolled out its first hypertension control initiative, with Resolve to Save Lives contributing technical expertise, blood pressure devices and antihypertensive medications to primary health care centers where the project will be implemented. Hypertension control initiatives also began in the Philippines and in Ethiopia in 2020.

Live COVID-19 Safe toolkit created to combat rising COVID-19 rates and public fatigue.

While public awareness of COVID-19 remains high, data from many countries shows troubling declines in masking and other protective behaviors. To make it easy for governments, NGOs and health professionals to mount fresh campaigns that reengage the public and encourage these “new normal” behaviors, Vital Strategies and Resolve to Save Lives launched a new “Live COVID-19 Safe” campaign toolkit.

STOP data from 57 countries reveals governments are not doing enough to protect policy from tobacco industry influence.

New research citing evidence collected by civil society groups in 57 countries reveals that, during 2019, the tobacco industry stepped up efforts to lobby governments by targeting departments of finance, customs and trade. This enabled the industry to further expand its influence during the COVID-19 crisis in 2020. STOP’s 2020 Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index outlines how governments were vulnerable to the tobacco industry gaining influence, how the industry is exploiting COVID-19 to gain greater influence, and what governments should do to protect policy.

Mayor of Accra Mohammed Adjei Sowah places a candle in remembrance of lives lost from road crashes.


Case study released: “Lessons From South Africa’s Campaign for a Tax on Sugary Beverages.”

In 2018, South Africa became the first African country to introduce a tax on sugary beverages. Before the 11% tax was passed, Vital Strategies had supported partners in the implementation of an extensive public communication and advocacy campaign to build political and public support for the proposed policy. This case study describes the factors that led to the passage of the tax, and, in particular, how strategic advocacy and communication informed by evidence, experience and local context helped to secure political and public support. Lessons learned from this campaign can inform other countries’ communication and advocacy efforts on behalf of policies to address the global obesity epidemic.

Sugary drink taxes work. Learn more on our blog.

A win-win as Kenyan artisans produce personal protective equipment.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) in Kenya, as well as a loss of income for 80% of its citizens. To boost livelihoods and protect health care workers on the front lines of the pandemic, Resolve to Save Lives and more than 55 partners launched the Personal Protective Equipment for the Africa Fund and Coalition. The fund provides grants to small businesses to produce PPE locally for health care workers in their communities—a win-win for all involved.

India tightens trans fat regulations.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India approved a 2% limit on industrially produced trans fat for all fats and oils, a result of technical support from and engagement with policymakers from Resolve to Save Lives and Global Health Advocacy Incubator’s partners in the country.

Vital Strategies and the Philadelphia Department of Public Health partner to advance equity in overdose prevention.

The partners announced a grant opportunity for community organizations working to advance health and race equity in overdose prevention. The program will support six organizations led by people of color, in efforts that range from community outreach to engagement and mentorship for youth in policy advocacy on race and health equity.

Childhood lead poisoning prevention program advances in 2020.

Vital worked with Peru’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reimagine, revise and adopt clinical guidance for management and prevention of lead exposure in children and pregnant women. The updated guidance allows health care professionals to provide clinical and exposure avoidance advice that is tailored to the likelihood of exposure, rather than depend on scarce testing resources.

Kenyan artisans produced masks for front-line health care workers with the support of Vital Strategies’ Resolve to Save Lives initiative.

Our numbers in 2020

  • Mentions in media outlets around the world


  • People covered by 17 tobacco control policy wins

    2 billion

  • Health care workers trained in infection prevention and control in Africa