In 2019, nearly two years ago, WHO’s Country Office in the People’s Republic of China picked up a media statement by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission on reported cases of ‘viral pneumonia’ in Wuhan, People’s Republic of China. The world was introduced to the then novel Coronavirus, and the ensuing global crisis it has left in its wake, affecting lives and businesses across all industries and sectors, from agriculture to tourism and healthcare. Although the pandemic has shocked multiple systems, it has shown that private organisations of all sizes play a crucial role in helping these systems and their operating communities build and sustain resilience. Thus, careful examination of the private sector’s healthcare responses since the outbreak would provide significant insights into how countries across the continent are balancing the goal of sustaining both economic and public health even beyond a pandemic.
New terrains for Private & Public Sector Partnerships
Across the continent, private and public sector partnerships have been pivotal to tackling the pandemic. Last year, in response to the impact of COVID-19, the Eastern and Southern African Trade and Development Bank (TDB) donated US$500,000 to support the continent through the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC).
In Nigeria, the private sector came together to form the Private Sector Coalition Against COVID-19 (CACOVID)1. Spearheaded by the Central Bank of Nigeria, CACOVID was established to mobilise private sector resources to augment the government approved $5.9 billion (₦2.3 trillion) for the Nigeria Economic Sustainability Plan. Institutions like the United Bank for Africa made significant contributions, demonstrating that Africa’s private sector remains a credible resource in addressing long-term economic stressors.
A system driven approach to societal transformation
Private actors from various industries have always been crucial to minimising the impact of shock and stressor events, and the healthcare sector is no exception. Admittedly, while the public sector in Nigeria is focusing efforts on the COVID-19 response, the private sector remains a big provider of health services to most of the domestic population. As a portfolio company within the Heirs Holdings – a company on a mission to improve lives and transform Africa, Avon Medical Practice’s operations are rooted in the economic philosophy of Africapitalism; a private sector-led approach to Africa’s development through long-term investments in critical sectors creating both economic prosperity and social wealth. For this reason, Avon provides quality health care services that is designed to empower people across Nigeria to live healthier, fuller lives.
Private sector’s role in vaccine distribution
In January 2021, the World Health Organisation’s landscape of COVID-19 candidate vaccines listed 63 candidate vaccines in clinical development and 173 in preclinical development. This means that the production of vaccines will continue to permeate in the near future. For most countries, however, the vaccine distribution has already signalled a slow but sure exit from the pandemic. According to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which projected a 2.6 per cent Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the continent in 2021 and 3.8 per cent for 2022, access to COVID-19 vaccines would be the best stimulus to global economic recovery. Businesses are also poised to witness a global merchandise trade volume growth of eight per cent in 2021, after falling by 5.3 per cent in 2020.
With support from the private sector, mass and routine vaccination can be successfully achieved in Africa. So far, only fifteen African countries—nearly a third of the continent’s 54 nations—have fully vaccinated 10% of their
domestic population against COVID-19. Africa’s most populated country, Nigeria, has only administered at least 9,017,951 doses of COVID vaccines. With each person receiving 2 doses, the country would have only successfully vaccinated about 2.2% of its population. There is a need to engage more ecosystem players to execute a more significant distribution scheme.
The Era of Telehealth
A new discovery since the Covid-19 outbreak has been telehealth – the ability to deliver healthcare at a distance, leveraging information and communication technology to bridge the geographic separation of the clinician and consumer. Globally, the introduction of telemedicine by players in the healthcare sector has led to a decline in costs, improved efficiency, and increased access in health care delivery. In response to the pandemic, Avon Medical Practice and Avon HMO, a leading managed healthcare company based in Nigeria, each created an online platform where patients could access healthcare services, from remote doctor consultations, specialist consultations, to drug refills and delivery to their doorstep and manage their health. Patients can keep track of their health, consult their medical practitioners, have access to health tips and information from qualified medical staff, and even rate and review their doctor experience.
The lack of medical history and access to basic health information are some of the reasons why many people are not prepared for emergencies. Hence, Avon Medical Practice continues to spearhead several programmes and outreaches aimed at educating local communities about their health status. If the main rationale for telehealth is to decrease the cost of delivering health care, make more efficient use of the health workforce, and improve timely and equitable access to services, more healthcare providers across the continent need to toll the path of Avon Medical Practice and create access to adequate and effective health care services through technology.
Healthcare & Tourism: How local economies in Africa are scaling up, building resistance, and sustaining the continent
For most African countries, travelling has been significantly impacted since the pandemic. Two important and closely related aspects are leisure travel and medical tourism. With major international hospitals in India reporting up to 70% decline in international patient flow, Africa is witnessing the birth of its own regional medical tourism, with countries like South Africa, Morocco, Egypt, and Tunisia making significant adjustment to their health care deliveries.
Indeed, medial tourism trends are shifting and more countries on the continent are further able to reduce their international expenditure across key medical tourism markets like Turkey, India, United Kingdom, etc. in addition to reduced expenditures, the pandemic has also bolstered the approach to and the capacity for medical research on the continent.
Nationwide lockdowns also forced the domestic population to consider local alternatives as well as motivate local medical centres to successfully build capacity to accommodate international patients, roll out affordable and comprehensive insurance plans and operate globally standardised practices.
Furthermore, to curb the spread of the virus, travelling passengers are required to test prior to departure and upon arrival. In Lagos, Nigeria’s industrial hub with a metro area population of over 14million, this initiative is managed by the Lagos State Biobank, which works closely with private clinics and laboratories to ensure that tests are conducted seamlessly. This development creates an enabling policy and institutional environment that enables the private and public sectors to fulfil their respective roles in mitigating the spread of the virus.
The future of healthcare: post Covid recovery
Although more investment is still needed to support Africa’s resilient recovery, member nations are demonstrating innovation, agility, and capacity building for public health systems. In South Africa, a group of leading South African virologists, immunologists, vaccinologists, infectious disease specialists and microbiologists formed a consortium to address the virus. The group’s achievements were possible with support from public institutions like the South African Medical Research Council and the Department of Science and Innovation.
Beyond clinicians and scientists working in the frontline, private sector-led companies like Avon Medical Practice and Avon HMO continue to engage in systematic processes that identify healthcare challenges and create sustainable solutions to them. By ensuring that people – regardless of their economic status – have access to affordable universal health care services, Avon Medical Practice is empowering local communities with information about their health status, which puts them in a better position to navigate global crises like the pandemic with knowledge and support from their practitioners.
Looking ahead, a structured mechanism that brings together public and private actors to identify, prioritise, implement, and measure policy reforms and actions will be instrumental in advancing not only the health sector but other pivotal industries. Actors like Avon Medical Practice that implement structures, strategies and activities with the ‘whole-of-society approach’ are better positioned to tackle development deficits and address root causes of poverty and economic stagnation. Indeed, this awareness of how the private and public sectors can work together, is how African countries can leverage healthcare to accelerate and contextualise investments that will propel sustainable development and realise prosperity for the entire continent.