Reimagining the Private Sector’s Role in Health Amid COVID-19

Ian MatthewsNews

 Takeaways from the GBCHealth Webinar on HIV, TB, Malaria and COVID-19

COVID-19 is threatening our collective progress towards the eradication of HIV, TB and malaria. A recent report from the Global Fund found that COVID-19 could cause deaths to nearly double in the next 12 months from these diseases. Three-quarters of Global Fund programs alone are experiencing disruptions, along with severe disruptions to routine healthcare services in many countries due to lockdowns, diversion of healthcare workforce to the COVID-19 response, disruption of travel and supply chains, and other reasons. These factors and others are affecting the ability to prevent, diagnose and treat the three diseases. Unless immediate steps are taken to mitigate the effect of the pandemic, COVID-19 could threaten decades of progress, pushing us back to levels close to the peak of the epidemics.

To address these challenges, GBCHealth – in collaboration with the Private Sector Constituency to the Global Fund and the Corporate Alliance on Malaria in Africa – organized its July 16th webinar, Reimagining Commitment to Fighting HIV, TB and Malaria During COVID-19: Focus on the Private Sector, to:

  • Examine the impacts of COVID-19 on malaria, HIV and TB interventions, and possible mitigation strategies to protect hard-won gains.
  • Share best practices for how businesses are addressing malaria, HIV, TB and COVID-19 in their workplaces, communities and beyond.
  • Deliberate on ways that companies can harness their core business strategy, including marketing, communication, innovation as well as philanthropy, to respond to the potential increases in malaria, HIV and TB cases.

A number of key themes surfaced during the discussion with the private sector and with leaders in global health: 

  • The private sector needs to protect their workforce and the communities they live and work in.
  • Partnerships and collaboration are critical.
  • The private sector must be agile and adaptive. 
  • Continuity of services is essential. 
  • Engage the local private sector.
  • There is a business case for intervening.
  • Any response must be sustainable.
  • Civil society and communities are needed at every level of the response.

GBCHealth President Nancy Wildfeir-Field kicked off the discussion, setting the stage with an overview of the issues at hand and putting the conversation within the context of the private sector’s historical role as an indispensable advocate, partner and stakeholder in addressing the epidemics and other global health issues.

The webinar featured a keynote discussion between Peter Sands, Executive Director of The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and Dr. Lia Tadesse Gebremedhin, Minister of Health, Federal Republic of Ethiopia, moderated by Sherwin Charles, CEO and Co-Founder, Goodbye Malaria. 

Sands shared insights on the impact of the pandemic on the three diseases and discussed the Global Fund’s and private sector’s roles in working to ameliorate the damage. He described the Global Fund’s efforts to support countries through the COVID-19 Response Mechanism and other means, and stressed that the Fund’s experience with the three infectious diseases and multisector relationships make it well-positioned to address the dual threat of COVID-19 and the three diseases. He discussed potential roles for the private sector in the response, such as local manufacturing of PPE and other supplies, and helping to facilitate the movement towards online operations for businesses and institutions around the world. 

He also made an appeal to those attending the event to galvanize further support from those in the broader private sector who are not currently committed to these issues. “The private sector has underestimated what is at risk with infectious diseases. If there was ever a lesson as to what is at stake – the disruption to business and the economy – COVID-19 is that lesson. I hope that when we make it through this pandemic, we remember that there is a very powerful link between the health of the population and its ability to generate wealth. “I think COVID-19 could transform the relationship between the business community and health to a much broader engagement than we have achieved thus far.”

Minister Tadesse shared some of the strategies that helped make Ethiopia’s COVID-19 response a success, such as screening at borders, preparing healthcare facilities, coordination with regional health bureaus, non-pharmaceutical interventions such as school closures and bans on big public gatherings, regularly reviewing and adapting to recent data, prioritizing the continuity of certain essential services, and public awareness campaigns. She also discussed multilateral solutions to address the current health crises, including examples of how the Ethiopian Ministry of Health worked with private sector partners from telecommunications, entertainment, healthcare, insurance, manufacturing and other sectors in the response.

She concluded by saying, “This pandemic has taken a toll on the economy in different ways. We need to work in partnership to address COVID-19, but also to maintain the economy. We have been working with the private sector around sustainability of essential services and local manufacturing, but we know that we still need to grow that engagement to best support the health system.”

Private Sector Views

Contributors from the private sector shared specific examples of their own organization’s work and how business has been instrumental in addressing COVID-19 in a myriad of ways, including raising funds and supporting national responses, investing directly in primary healthcare, taking critical steps to protect their employees and communities, leveraging their capabilities in manufacturing, communications and supply of health commodities, especially PPE, as well as innovation in new treatments and vaccines.

Olive Mumba, Executive Director, EANNASO, led off, sharing the effects of COVID-19 on the civil society and community-based organizations within the EANNASO network. She emphasized that “civil society and communities should be given space to be part of the global health response so we can build community systems as we build health systems.” 

Michael Steinberg, Team Lead, Global Public Health & Special Projects, Chevron Corporation, talked about Chevron’s priority to protect its workforce amidst COVID-19, along with the company’s longer-term focus on building capacity, supply chains and infrastructure. He highlighted the role of collaboration, saying “We have the infrastructure and partners in place already; all stakeholders need to be involved in the response to global health challenges.”

Paul Schaper, Executive Director, Global Health Policy, Merck & Co., Inc., shared how Merck is using some of the lessons learned from the fight against HIV/AIDS to respond to COVID-19, and how they are ensuring that the supply of the medicines, vaccines, and other health products is maintained. “We’ve learned from experience in fighting HIV/AIDS and Ebola that science and collaboration are essential both to develop the medicines and vaccines in public health emergencies like COVID-19, but more importantly, to get the medicines and vaccines to those that can benefit from them,” he said. 

Renuka Gadde, Vice President, Global Health, BD, spoke about how BD is using its capabilities, expertise, and scale to address some of the critical needs and gaps related to COVID-19, especially in LMICs. This includes developing a COVID-19 assay on a molecular platform, and launching a rapid antigen test. Referencing lessons learned, she noted that “The three diseases have shown us ways to come together and work in harmony through technology, supporting access, developing health systems, listening to the voice of communities, mobilizing resources at multiple levels.”

Omobolanle Victor-Laniyan, Head, Sustainability, Access Bank, discussed the Bank’s response to COVID-19, and stressed the importance – especially in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa – of staying highly focused on existing initiatives to fight diseases such as HIV and malaria during the pandemic. She noted that the ability of the private sector to rapidly come together to address Covid-19 was based on relationships and trust. She strongly reiterated that “We cannot afford to ignore malaria and HIV amid COVID-19. We can’t ‘rob Peter to pay Paul’ – we need to stay committed to addressing existing health issues which include malaria and HIV.”

Elisabeth Medou Badang, Senior Vice President Africa and Indian Ocean and Spokesperson for Orange Middle East & Africa, Orange, talked about how Orange is using its expertise with digital platforms to improve access to health services and build stronger health data systems in the COVID-19 response. “The importance of technology is more critical than ever; the pandemic is putting more pressure on the health system and underscores the need to accelerate the roll-out of all relevant current solutions as well as new solutions,” she said. Orange is addressing COVID-19 through data collection, remote monitoring /diagnosis, health data sharing, adapting e-health infrastructure that had previously been focused on the three diseases and more. 

Concluding the event, Zouera Youssoufou, Managing Director and CEO, Aliko Dangote Foundation, summarized some of the sentiments from the discussion, stressing that the private sector needs to get involved to help fill the gap in resources, addressing the immediacy of the pandemic without losing sight of the existing challenges presented by malaria, HIV and TB – diseases that annually lead to the deaths of more than a million people. “COVID-19 has made it clear that there’s limited help available from outside any country and there’s no blueprint for action; each country is designing its own response on lockdown and other control and containment measures, and funding is scarce,” she said. “This is why the private sector response is key.”

A webinar report will be available in the coming days, which will include more detailed overviews of the keynote discussion, a review of the key themes of the event, and examples provided by participants. For that and more on future webinars and other initiatives from GBCHealth, follow us on Twitter and make sure you’re signed up for our newsletter

A full recording of the event is available here: 

Ian MatthewsReimagining the Private Sector’s Role in Health Amid COVID-19