Why Covid-19 could kickstart global healthcare progress

The COVID-19 crisis will be with us for a while yet, but it could be the catalyst for real change in global health

Any discussion of global healthcare in the coming months of 2020 will naturally be dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic — as was proved during a panel discussion on health resilience at the United Nations Global Compact Leaders Summit, held virtually because of the virus. Speakers were optimistic that the response to COVID-19 could be a turning point for global health.

“We are very much in the foothills of this pandemic,” said Phil Thomson, President of Global Affairs at pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline. He emphasised that developed countries are still grappling with the virus, while the social and economic effects on developing nations has not yet been felt. There is work to be done, but there are opportunities too.

A role for the food industry

The pharmaceutical sector has an obvious role to play but perhaps less obvious is the role of food companies. Health and food are inseparable, said Katrien van Laere, VP of Medical and Scientific Affairs at Danone.

Many of those who have had COVID-19 have lost muscle health while they were sick, said Ms. van Laere, and good nutrition has an important role to play in their recovery. More widely, stable supplies of quality food are an essential part of health resilience in communities around the world.

Food stability is also a factor in halting the spread of disease. In many developing countries, people need to go out every day either to get their next meal or to make the money to buy food. It is not possible for these people to quarantine because they will starve.

Vaccine hopes are central

In other parts of the world, multiple generations live together under one roof. The children need to go to school and their parents must work, so it is difficult to protect grandparents, whose age makes them high-risk for the disease.

The difficulty in quarantining certain populations is just one reason why a vaccine is the only viable solution to the COVID-19 pandemic, said Mr. Thomson. Going in-and-out of lockdown each time the virus flares is not a practical solution.

He remained confident that a vaccine will soon be available. However, the challenge will be to vaccinate communities worldwide. Reaching people in war zones and refugee camps, for example, will require partnerships with NGOs.

Building on a mood of collaboration

Cooperation will be key to health resilience in general, the panel agreed. Carlos Mesquita, Mozambique’s Minister of Industry and Commerce, reminded the panel that “we are only as strong as the weakest link of the chain.” He pointed out that in some parts of Africa malaria was still a more significant problem than COVID-19.

All panellists agreed that more widespread collaboration would be vital. Mr. Thomson said that COVID-19 had driven “unprecedented” collaboration amongst pharmaceutical companies and that, over the next few months, the data would show which of the new technologies being developed to fight the virus could be developed further. He said it was likely that some of these technologies could be adapted to tackle other infectious diseases.

The current mood of urgency and a desire to collaborate could be harnessed to drive further improvements in healthcare worldwide, including on the Sustainable Development Goals.

As Ms. van Laere concluded: “If we are united, we really can bring health during and after this pandemic, but it is essential that we are seen as all together — businesses, Governments and NGOs. And we can do that.”

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