« All News

Blog: From Doctors Without Borders to McKinsey.org: This engineer designs life-saving health operations in Buenos Aires

June 24, 2020

Supporting people when they need it most 

As the COVID-19 pandemic escalated around the world, Assunção saw an opportunity to draw on her previous experience with Doctors without Borders to help the residents of one of Buenos Aires’ oldest and largest informal settlements, Barrio 31. As in informal settlements around the world, Coronavirus precautions like social distancing and stay-at-home quarantining are nearly impossible here: families live close together in tiny, cramped apartments, and as one resident starkly put it, “If I don’t work, we don’t eat.” It’s unfortunately no surprise, then, that Barrio 31 and the city’s other slums make up 10% of the Buenos Aires population but 50% of infected cases across the city. 

A Prevention Post volunteer performs a health assessment in Barrio 31.

Co-creating life-saving solutions 

Assunção first arrived in Buenos Aires from her home in Portugal as an operations specialist to support the Rethinking Recycling program’s expansion in Argentina. A biomedical engineer by training, she had previously served as a biomedical and cold chain expert with Doctors Without Borders, first in Iraq, then in the Central African Republic, and finally in Guinea Bissau.

When the pandemic hit, Assunção knew rapid testing would be critical to protect communities like Barrio 31 from runaway outbreaks. She helped bring the International Red Cross, McKinsey.org and the City of Buenos Aires government together where they created mobile “Prevention Posts.” These Prevention Posts screen residents for symptoms, connect them with care as needed, and provide information on how to prevent further spread of the virus. Then, Assunção linked with the Doctors Without Borders volunteer training program, helping to build a community base where volunteers would screen Barrio 31 residents for possible symptoms at these Prevention Posts. 

Assunção with her Bio-medical team in Central African Republic.

While serving with Doctors Without Borders in the Central African Republic, Assunção worked with local volunteers that had no previous experience in healthcare to perform basic health assessments – taking temperatures, checking for vitals – for people who needed urgent care. As she described, “Because of my work with Doctors Without Borders, when COVID-19 hit Barrio 31, I knew it was possible to rapidly train people in health assessment skills to help keep the community safe.”

The mobile testing initiative launched with one Prevention Post in Barrio 31, serving nearly 300 people a day, detecting cases that needed to be seen in hospital. Thanks to the pilot’s success, the City Government of Buenos Aires, in partnership with Doctors Without Borders, quickly expanded this cost-effective and easy-to-implement solution and is now deploying Prevention Posts in informal settlements across the city, where nearly 10,000 people are screened for symptoms every day. 

“My work with Doctors Without Borders taught me that with the right training and support, anything is possible,” reflects Assunção, “I really admire the tireless energy that people in Buenos Aires bring to their daily life; so many of them spend their free time volunteering or serving their communities. It was inspiring to see this energy and purpose support the communities we work in to save people’s lives during the pandemic.”