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COVID-19 lessons are promoting partnerships to boost health systems, Githinji Gitahi and Anthony Bailey say.
COVID-19 has tested the healthcare system of every single country around the world in ways unseen in recent history. But behind this enormous challenge lies a critical opportunity to take the lessons gathered from the COVID-19 pandemic response and proactively use them to inform community-focused health policies, which form the bedrock of any resilient, contextually relevant health system.
The commitments made by African governments to achieve universal health coverage by 2030 are a clear indication that there is a genuine eagerness – and action – toward improving healthcare in Africa. Reaching this goal will require an integrated and holistic approach to creating mutually beneficial partnerships, including efforts that seek to combine the different strengths of diverse partners to convert big ideas into bigger, impactful outcomes.
Involving communities to address challenges
Communities lie at the heart of effective action. They bring invaluable knowledge of the specific obstacles they face, and the potential and sustainable solutions to effect real long-term change. But no community can do it alone.
“By combining resources and strengths to support vulnerable communities, we can work together to address challenges and aid timely access to essential health services.”
Githinji Gitahi and Anthony Bailey
Partnerships between community-based organisations and academic institutions can provide the evidence to inform policy, programmes and services to better respond to the unique realities and needs of communities, particularly the most marginalised. Such partnerships are fundamental to creating lasting health change in Africa.
By combining resources and strengths to support vulnerable communities, we can work together to address challenges and aid timely access to essential health services. Such collaboration would also contribute significantly toward achieving Africa’s health goals and ultimately, to making universal health coverage a reality across the continent. This is not an impossible dream.
Partnership lessons from COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that cross-border and cross-sectoral collaborations can be leveraged to address the world’s most pressing healthcare challenges, and do so with speed and accuracy when these challenges are a question of life, death, and economic wellbeing. Addressing COVID-19 and achieving universal health coverage are inseparable, intertwined goals. Both are essential, ambitious goals that require partnerships that draw support from a broad spectrum of institutions’ strengths and resources to improve health outcomes.
As an illustration, Amref Health Africa and the Institute on Inequalities in Global Health at the US-based University of Southern California (USC IIGH) have collaborated to leverage their strengths in community development and research to tackle the drivers of systemic inequalities, working toward targeted outcomes that will address health disparities and benefit communities.
The USC IIGH’s expertise in innovative research and evaluation to provide an evidence for informed action complements Amref’s long-standing experience in working to strengthen health systems and advancing community-focused health initiatives in Sub-Saharan Africa. The two institutions’ collective goal is to enhance research and education that is not only locally beneficial but globally relevant, and to use pilot programmes to prove the viability of concepts that can be replicated.
Partnerships’ impacts in East Africa
Amref Health Africa and USC IIGH are jointly assessing the impact of the Kenyan and Ugandan governments’ responses to COVID-19 on their populations’ health and wellbeing, with a view to informing future policymaking.
In Kenya, this research has documented interruptions to service delivery for maternal and child health as well as the critical roles that community health volunteers have taken on to promote continuity of access to services as well as to manage the pandemic.
These findings can help frame policy discussions around the status and roles of community health volunteers to maximise health system efficiency, ensure appropriate recognition of community health volunteers’ work and help meet communities’ health needs.
Another example of a cross-sectoral partnership is that between Unilever and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) supporting water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
Support to governments is given to improve coordination of activities towards COVID-19 prevention and management at the national and sub-national levels. The Unilever and the FCDO partnership aim to promote handwashing and other infection prevention practices. An innovative social behaviour change communication intervention has also been launched in the three countries accompanied by providing handwashing equipment in the communities to enhance access and use of WASH services.
“We must begin a public conversation now about why partnerships are needed.”
Githinji Gitahi and Anthony Bailey
These are just a few of the many cross-sectoral partnerships that are currently being implemented on the continent. To effectively advance our community-focused work, we must begin a public conversation now about why partnerships are needed, and call for a discussion about the benefits of supporting collaborations that involving community-based and academic institutions.
Time to act
As we near the first quarter of the 21st century, we owe it to the communities we work with, and to humanity in general to solve the health challenges that have continued to affect African countries as well as the rest of the world, and to foster a spirit of more effective, strategic action and greater shared prosperity.
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the cascading impacts of rising health and social inequalities, it is imperative that we all advocate for the future we hope for now while working together to create those possibilities today.
Githinji Gitahi is the Group CEO of Amref Health Africa. He can be reached at [email protected]. Anthony Bailey, vice-president for strategic and global initiatives, University of Southern California, can be reached at [email protected].
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.