A year like no other

February 2021

In March 2020 Vinny Smith, Chief Executive of Meningitis Research Foundation, published a candid blog considering what COVID-19 might mean for our future and the future of meningitis. Now, one year on, he takes a look a back at the past 12 months; a year like no other.
 
This time last year I had just returned from a conference in Bangkok with public health experts, gathered from across Asia, where I had shared my insights into vaccine hesitancy. I was about to go to a meeting in Geneva at the World Health Organization (WHO) for the final meeting of the technical task force, working to create the world’s first ever global roadmap for meningitis. And I was sat in an office in Bristol trying to find enough new bins, wipes and posters warning people to wash their hands and dispose of tissues safely, whilst listening rather jealously to stories of colleagues returning from family holidays in Northern Italy.
Fast forward one year later. A global pandemic has taken over all our lives. In May and June 2020 I took two months off work with a viral infection and post-viral fatigue (presumed COVID) that involved a scary trip to hospital by ambulance. I’ve been diagnosed with Functional Movement Disorder, assumed to be prompted by the infection, which presents as intermittent uncontrollable muscle spasms in my arms and legs. Then, I endured a 1 month relapse over Christmas and New Year of post-viral fatigue -all the joys of extreme fatigue, headaches and aching limbs. Today is the 23rd February and I haven’t yet walked more than 400 metres at once in 2021.

Image: Vinny participating in the 2.6 virtual challenge April 2020, prior to falling ill.
But that isn’t nearly the whole story of my year.

Because public fundraising across the charity sector could not continue through lockdown as usual, so too MRF’s funding fell dramatically. This meant at great speed we very sadly had to let go almost half our staff team; move office to a very tiny place with just a few desks; and at the same time keep supporting people who understandably had many questions about what COVID means for their lives living with the after-effects of meningitis. We needed to do this whilst working from home and trying to be there for each other as we all adjusted to this ‘new normal’. Mostly, we missed each other. We reminded ourselves continuously that, despite the circumstances we were in, our members and supporters still needed us to keep delivering on our founding promise - to try and ensure that ‘no family goes through what we have’.

And that’s exactly what we’ve tried to do.
In the past year, the World Health Organization included meningitis in its 5-year programme of work for the first time, enabled by advocacy that we led with our incredible team and supporters around the world. We organised virtual fundraising events for the first time ever, including ‘running’ a virtual London Marathon. We showed that virtual Board meetings can work and we met more this year than ever before. We developed a new strategy for the next 5 years involving feedback from over 100 people and 20 in depth interviews. We set ourselves on course to merge with the Confederation of Meningitis Organisations (CoMO) in 2021, becoming the global network for people affected by meningitis globally.

Image: One of our fantastic supporters completing their Virtual London Marathon for #TeamMRF, October 2020.
And that’s not all. We also secured the Meningitis Progress Tracker as the go-to place in the world for the best data available across the four main bacterial pathogens that cause meningitis. Building on the success of the Global Meningitis Genome library, we ensured the Global Meningitis Genome Partnership is the hub for integrated conversations about global developments in this space. We hosted online research webinars for the first time. In November, after 4 years of hard work, we helped secure the world’s first World Health Organization global meningitis roadmap, aiming to defeat meningitis by 2030.  And, every day, we were there for people and families who needed our support.

So above all, despite my illness, this year has been about my team and family. The MRF team that delivered for our supporters and each other. My closest colleagues who stepped in for me when I simply could not be there, and led with resilience and kindness. The extended team of partners and funders we work with who stood by us and kept up the pace of progress towards a world free from meningitis. My family who looked after me and kept up my spirits on the dark days.

For me it has been a year like no other. I know for many others, it has been far, far worse. But each day is anew, research and science are triumphing, and my glass still feels half full (or fuller). For MRF and me there is a lot that still needs to be done in the years ahead, and with support from our supporters, members, funders, partners, colleagues, friends and family we look forward to that challenge head on.
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About the author

Vinny Smith
Chief Executive

Besides meeting my wife and having two wonderful kids, leading MRF is the greatest privilege of my life.

Since joining in 2015 I’ve helped develop and launch a new brand identity, new website and a new strategy. We’ve held governments to account on vaccine policy and called for and achieved a new World Health Organisation global task force for meningitis to 2030.
Tel: 0333 405 6262