Noah Dallaji canvasses the urgent need to invest more in the health sector

This year’s letter to the world audience by Bill and Melinda Gates, co-founders of the Gates Foundation, throws up a lot of inspiring and challenging perspectives on the global environment where health as a development issue is a major concern and by extension the future of humanity.

The annual letter, however, highlighted the Corona Virus (COVID-19) with its novel character and effects on mankind and indeed global health history, which in the words of Bill and Melinda Gates, hallmarked “the year global health went local.”

According to them, hitherto, “global health” was rarely used to mean the health of everyone, everywhere, rather, the term used to refer to the health of people in non-rich countries. But this characterisation, they stated, changed in the last year because the distinction between rich and poor countries collapsed since Corona virus had no regard for borders or geography.

Therefore, a major lesson from this position is the need for collaboration in development initiatives just as we need a more compassionate world where the rich (individuals, organizations and countries) also assist the poor on issues of development especially that of health concerns. This is critical in the face of growing inequalities, economic or otherwise, even before the large-scale disruption in the wake of Covid-19.

Elaborating on the theme of the letter, “The year global health went local”, Bill and his wife wrote passionately thus: ”We all saw first-hand how quickly a disease you’ve never heard of in a place you may have never been can become a public health emergency right in your own backyard. Viruses like COVID-19 remind us that, for all our differences, everyone in this world is connected biologically by a microscopic network of germs and particles –and that, like it or not, we’re all in this together.

“We hope the experience we’ve all lived through the last year will lead to a long-term change in the way people think about global health –and help people in rich countries see that investments in global health benefit not only low-income countries but everyone”.

Aside the various investments they have made on health concerns around the world and in spite of the ugly innuendo against Bill Gates on the virus (the Gates Foundation has invested $1.75 billion in the fight against COVID-19), the above messages by the couple speak to the big benefits of philanthropy and the challenge of our common humanity.

Philanthropy is invaluable in getting the necessary cooperation as the COVID-19 example has shown because arriving at vaccines in such a relative short time and in line with the rigorous process couldn’t have happened except for the cooperation garnered through pooling of global resources (even competitors shared research findings) in order to tackle the largest public health challenge in human history. This should be a long-lasting lesson for a peaceful and prosperous world, leaders at every level coming together to find a common ground for cooperation in arriving at solutions to save humanity.

Importantly, I think the Gates’ plea to wealthy countries to support the poor ones in making the vaccines available to the people is a rational decision, since “COVID-19 anywhere is a threat to everyone” and of course we must recognize the humanitarian utility. As Melinda Gates noted in a personal segment of the letter, the concern really would be that COVID-19 responses leave no one behind and this is clearly the crux of the matter.

The letter further raised some vital issues on whether the world can emerge from the pandemic more equal than we entered it and how prepared we are to deal with the next pandemic. Please, no scare here, the next pandemic is a possibility on account of history and fact of science. When, I don’t know. But looking at the trajectory, even as a layman in recent history, from AIDS to ZIKA, EBOLA and now COVID-19, we just have to be prepared, the next pandemic could still come perhaps as a flu, Corona virus or some new disease we’ve never seen before, in the words of Bill Gates and we should think along this enlightened perspective.

Reports have indicated that Corona virus had disproportionate impact on people in different societies and in different forms, largely as a factor of economic considerations. We have seen this manifest highly in the developing countries where procurement of medical facilities had been a nightmare and thus affecting relevant responses. There are also situations where COVID-19 disruptions have caused job losses and affected education access on account of inability to afford virtual learning, cost lives, and the fact that it threw the global economy into a devastating recession. Even in advanced countries, the same effect was witnessed among the less endowed segments of their societies where recurring economic inequality has had a marked effect on rate of infection and deaths.

These are major challenges especially in developing countries like Nigeria where in spite of the good responses by the various layers of government, there’s still more to be done and this will ultimately decide if Nigeria and other developing countries will be able to overcome the inequality challenge. Informed projections, however, show that inequality will likely persist to the extent that prevailing economic realities and classes will continue to determine where everyone stands on the ladder of progress and effect on the quality of life. Poignantly as Melinda Gates advocated in the letter, it would be a good thing if economic policies are made to favour the vulnerable ones, especially our women because of their peculiar challenges to avoid exclusion.

More specifically, and despite the relative lower infections in Nigeria and Africa generally, until vaccines get to everyone around the world, we cannot yet shout Uhuru, because of the nature of the virus being capable of developing new clusters of disease and the cycle of inequality will likely continue. This is an important point to note as the world battles the pandemic. In Nigeria, we never thought there would be a second wave until we woke up one day to realize that the number of cases was rising again and thus necessitating the new adherence to COVID-19 protocols backed by law. So no one should be deluded that the virus is a fluke.

As noted by the Gates and I concur, “everything depends on whether the world comes together to ensure that the lifesaving science developed in 2020 saves as many lives as possible in 2021” and that “demanding an inclusive response will save lives and livelihoods now –and create a foundation for a post-pandemic world that is stronger, more equal and more resilient”.

How prepared we are ahead of the next pandemic as posited by Bill Gates will depend on how much the world spends on medical and scientific innovations in research and outcomes with great optimism that the world will see huge advances over the next five years in the ability to develop new vaccines. However, he stated, “pandemic preparedness must be taken as seriously as we take the threat of war”.

According to him, the world needs to double investments in research and development and organizations like CEPI that have proven invaluable with COVID-19 as well as building new capabilities. In his opinion, the bulk of the funding needs to come from the rich countries, informing that the COVID-19 pandemic is estimated to have cost the world $28 trillion.

The message back home is very clear: we need to do more in funding and upgrading our health facilities, enhance quality of the personnel to deliver on global best practices as we also rethink science education and research in our institutions.

Dallaji, founder, African Children Talent Discovery Foundation, wrote from Abuja.

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