Partnering in a pandemic: Advancing global access to health during COVID-19

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Partnering in a pandemic: Advancing global access to health during COVID-19. Via YouTube

Focusing on equitable and patient-centered care, ensuring sustainability, and thinking outside the box are common factors of progressive partnerships, according to experts speaking at the “Partnering in a pandemic: Advancing global access to health during COVID-19” live event, co-hosted by Smile Train and Devex.

As part of Devex’s UHC Pavilion and coinciding with the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly, panelists discussed how COVID-19 has stretched health care providers to the limit but also presented opportunities for new ways to collaborate.

Speaking with Devex Associate Editor Amruta Byatnal, Dr. Zameer Brey, South Africa tuberculosis program lead at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, emphasized the scope for doing things differently and warned of the danger of the status quo, saying that “I think there's a real risk that we can slip back to doing things the way we were.”

“We can't rely on medical missions. ... So we must invest sustainably and holistically. Locally led partnerships are the key.”

— Nkeiruka Obi, West and Central Africa program director, Smile Train

Similarly, Dr. Salome Maswime, head of global surgery at the University of Cape Town, said that the pandemic “also created opportunity for coming up with more interesting partnerships.” “We have had to add partners ... for example, funders, digital partners, etc., that we wouldn't have normally looked for,” Maswime said. “It has opened up new possibilities of finding new ways of doing things through challenging times.”

Brey talked about current collaborative efforts to respond to the challenges of COVID-19. He cited the example of the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator partnership as one that is anticipated to have significant impact in ensuring equity so the most vulnerable populations are reached, especially since “modeling suggested that if ... vaccines was restricted to those who could afford it, the result would be that the world would have more than double the number of COVID deaths on that single intervention.”

Nkeiruka Obi, West and Central Africa program director at Smile Train, advocated for partnerships to be dynamic and was dismissive of interventions that depend on medical professionals flying in from other countries for short periods of time and leaving again.

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“We can't rely on medical missions. ... So we must invest sustainably and holistically. Locally led partnerships are the key. They are more flexible ... even in the midst of a pandemic,” Obi said, speaking about the best way to ensure health care workers are accessible and available despite current restrictions on movement and travel.

Obi and Maswime also pointed out that years of deprioritizing health by governments have made any response to the pandemic far weaker and slower in making an impact.

In 2020, the Nigerian government allocated 4.5% of its annual budget to the health sector, despite African Union countries committing to allocating 15% in the Abuja Declaration of 2001 — “another unfulfilled promise, which COVID-19 has brought to the forefront,” Obi said.

But even countries whose health systems are considered strong have failed to respond effectively due to a lack of leadership, Maswime observed. She called for new ways of partnering that are equitable for all partners and said she sees the opportunity for South-South cooperation and learning from others who have undergone similar experiences.

Watch the event in full, view more #UNGA75 live events, and browse Devex’s UNGA coverage.

About the author

  • Rachel Shue

    Rachel Shue is responsible for Devex's digital content series, liaising with partners and clients, and helping flesh out ideas for new initiatives and events. She is currently based in Barcelona and has previously lived in Laos, South Africa, Afghanistan, Indonesia, and Lebanon, working with a range of NGOs, U.N. agencies, and management consulting firms.