2020 was a year full of challenges, but all that has been accomplished in the past 12 months reinforces the old adage that every challenge also represents an opportunity. At AHB, we have worked hard to take advantage of the opportunities the COVID-19 pandemic brought us in order to build a stronger, more resilient Africa moving forward.
Dr. Amit N. Thakker
When rumors of a new virus in China started circulating at the beginning of last year, very few could have predicted the journey that 2020 would take us on. Here in Kenya, it initially felt like a distant problem that may not have anything to do with us. But slowly, as it reached Italy, other parts of Europe, and then eventually Egypt and beyond, we realised the arrival of COVID-19 on our shores was inevitable.
On March 12 2020, when Kenya identified its first COVID-19 case, just one day after the World Health Organization designated it as a pandemic, the flurry of activity between private and public sector saw us working on a seven-day-a-week basis, including late-night meetings and early morning calls, to rapidly formulate a plan. We wanted to respond in a way that was effective, inclusive and regularly monitored.
There was a sense of panic, but we were also confident that the private health sector, in partnership with government and NGOs, had the opportunity to play a vital role in addressing this challenge. We needed to act quickly, but not rashly. We needed agility and foresight.
We learned, once again, that the private sector plays an essential role in healthcare. In fact, countries that had already institutionalized partnerships between the public and private sectors were able to deal with this pandemic more effectively because they had an established working relationship and, therefore, a stronger shield of protection. This reinforced our mission to structure and mechanise the relationship between the public and private health sectors.
Among the many negative things that COVID-19 has done, it should receive a gold medal in bringing the importance of health to the forefront of every conversation. The health sector has now been recognized, more than ever before, as a vital sector. Health is not something that runs parallel to other aspects of our life, but impacts every element of lives and economies. We have all experienced that if health is jeopardised, everything is jeopardised. We reaffirmed that strengthening health systems is the way forward. Rather than putting out one fire at a time, a resilient health system will allow us to respond quickly to crises while also meeting the everyday needs of our citizens.
We also saw firsthand why we need to be more self-reliant as a continent. When international supply chains came to a halt, manufacturers had to react quickly to start producing what we used to import. Where some industries were able to pivot and adapt, others were less prepared to continue without international participation. Building up our local capacity in every area of our economies, but specifically as it relates to health, will increase our ability to respond to challenges in the future with resilience and speed.
As an organisation, AHB has also learned many things from this experience. COVID-19 imposed so many changes on us, and we had to think creatively about how to still achieve our goals without doing things the same way we had always done them. We adapted our plans for the year, much of which included in-person facilitation and the convening of stakeholders, including our fifth annual Africa Health Business Symposium (AHBS), which was supposed to be held in Morocco. As the pandemic hit, we shifted the offering and collaboration style of AHB to allow us to continue engaging our partners and clients to achieve our mission.
We took AHBS and turned it into eAHBS, a series of webinars that featured health experts from all over the continent. We realised that not only was this way of working still effective, it even had some advantages. While we missed the networking and personal connections that our in-person events offered, we were able to reach a much wider audience, for both attendees and speakers. People who would normally be too busy to fly to a conference were able to share their valuable knowledge and only use an hour of their time.
We also helped launch the Coalition of Blood for Africa (CoBA) and conducted high-level roundtable sessions on various important topics online. We moderated conversations around the COVID-19 vaccine, including its access, distribution and efficacy. In partnership with Grand Challenges Canada (GCC), we renewed the support of 12 innovators in Kenya and Uganda, supporting public sector scaling in order to increase their self-sufficiency. We aided the growth of the Africa Public Health Foundation (APHF), in close partnership with Africa CDC, including strengthening the governance body and the secretariat process. For a year that threatened to slow everything down, we found ourselves busy doing exciting work in line with our mission and vision as a company.
Every crisis leads to opportunities, and for Africa, the renewed partnership between the public and private sector in areas like supply chain, medical technology and digital health will go far in strengthening our journey towards universal health coverage. The crisis also exposed weaknesses in health systems and many countries are quickly learning what they need to do to fill these gaps. And we have the opportunity to take advantage of the attention the sector has received in order to build and sustain a stronger health system far beyond this pandemic.