The global health divide: Working to close the equity gap

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The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted major disparities in health care access around the world, a concept with which those involved in global health are all too familiar. But in the wake of this most recent health crisis, experts in the space say now is a good time to harness momentum and secure more private-public partnerships that can help to bridge the gaps.

Dr. Raj Panjabi, special assistant to President Biden and senior director for global health security and biodefense, said the White House is working to close that gap with efforts such as establishing a pandemic fund with other G20 countries as well as developing a Global Health Worker Initiative.

“The president’s asked for a total of about $6 billion in his $88 billion package request over five years for health security and pandemic preparedness,” Panjabi said during a virtual event hosted by Fortune on Thursday. “But Congress hasn’t yet acted on that, and that would be my call to action is that we—if we want to make these policies convert into financing that’s new—we’ve got to ensure that our leadership, on all sides of government, actually act on the proposals set forward. Otherwise we will fall into the crisis of panic and neglect.”

The U.S., along with several other G20 countries, has already contributed $1.4 billion in seed investments to the efforts, but it’s not enough, Panjabi said. 

“That is just a down payment,” he continued. “And this is where I think again, we need the private sector to get even more involved, because what the world needs is about $10 billion of financing annually to close the gap in pandemic preparedness.”

One unique partnership exists with (RED), an organization founded by Bono and Bobby Shriver in 2006 to work with brands to raise money for the Global Fund, which in turn funds global health.

“We need to leverage companies’ marketing power, their creative minds, their executive leadership,” said Jennifer Lotito, president and chief operating officer of (RED). By marketing itself the way major companies such as Nike do, the organization raises the necessary funding: When you buy the (RED) iPhone, for example, Apple donates money to the Global Fund. 

“This is really about engaging consumers in the global fight, both with their money but also their attention span,” Lotito added. 

That’s needed now more than ever as pandemics increase in both frequency and severity. 

“What I could say is that over 30 years at the CDC, battling these global threats, they’ve become more frequent, more protracted in duration, and more intense in scale,” said Dr. Martin Cetron, director of the CDC’s division of global migration and quarantine (DGMQ).

Furthermore, pandemics are both spurred and intensified by other problems happening in the world.

“Think about climate change and environmental change, economic disruption that I mentioned, violence, and collapse, states of famine and food insecurity, and microbial evolution, all happening in a chaotic world at the same time,” Cetron continued. “They birth the problem of pandemics. They also serve to accelerate the intensity and potentiate the duration.”

In order to combat these problems, he added, there needs to be a unified response.

“We need to pull in harmony, and, in fact, the division that has grown wider leads us to forget that the real enemy here is the virus or the external threat, not one another,” Cetron said. 

So as public and private partnerships are forged to fund the solution, they’re also instrumental in rebuilding trust and access with at-risk communities. Cetron said promoting health literacy is more important than even vaccine development because “a vaccine in a vial never prevented a single case of disease nor averted a single death,” but implementation does. 

Dr. Allan Pamba, executive vice president for Roche Diagnostics operations in Africa, agreed. His organization has partnered with (RED) to do just that. Together, they’re increasing testing and diagnostics, and bringing those technologies to the public, especially in continents that are historically underserved but also most affected. 

“We talk so much about prevention and treatment,” Lotito said. “If you don’t have access to testing, none of that matters.”

Pamba also talked about the lack of health care providers in Africa. “This is a continent that carries 25% of the global health burden, but just 1% of the global health budget and 3% of the global health workforce,” he noted. 

Pamba said Roche is trying to break down the barriers to getting that care, which include awareness, affordability, and physical barriers. He added that is something they’re tackling with public-private partnerships, and he cited the AIDS epidemic as an example of how these partnerships can benefit the masses. 

“We have been able, through partnerships…to supply Africa with 60% of the platforms that are used today to do viral load testing, particularly in the public market space that I’m talking about, and that has tremendously helped in changing the face of that one particular disease in the continent,” Pamba said. “Today, if you do have HIV/AIDS in Africa, you do have an opportunity to live your entire life as was meant to be because diagnostics opened up the door for treatments, and that’s the power of partnerships.”

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