As Coronavirus pummels through global borders and countries scramble to protect their populations and economies, Sub-Saharan Africa is still relatively unscathed. These countries should take advantage of this bought time to collaborate with the private sector and prepare for the pandemic’s spread. Multinational companies can play a unique role in supporting the region’s needs during an emergency response, saving lives and offsetting potentially devastating damage.
We are already seeing the consequences globally as other countries attempt to respond to COVID-19—health systems overwhelmed, stock markets struggling, livelihoods challenged, freedoms restricted to prevent the novel disease’s spread. Many experts predicted that China and Africa’s close relationship would quickly bring the disease to the continent, but initial cases came in slowly and originated in Europe. Despite its unhurried spread, many places in Sub-Saharan Africa must be cautious: they house prime environments for this contagious disease due to densely populated cities and limited access to clean water for handwashing and sanitation. Governments such as Kenya, Ghana, and South Africa have banned foreign travelers from affected countries and some are closing borders, but more can be done. As The New York Times notes, these actions will not be enough to protect populations from the disease once it infiltrates borders. Like the rest of the world, Sub-Saharan African health systems, economies, and people will suffer from COVID-19’s strain and will benefit from private sector support.
Although governments manage public health services for their citizens, multinational companies play an important auxiliary role in the response to global epidemics ranging from the HIV crisis to the Ebola epidemic. These companies are uniquely positioned to support the prevention and control of disease spread by leveraging their local and global human and financial capital, knowledge (such as data, analytics, and systems design), and infrastructure (including technology, supply chains, and on-site employee health systems). This is key: companies can work with local entities to understand regional needs and determine how their corporate capabilities can be used to save lives. Such actions will protect employees and citizens, while lessening their own economic risks.
Multinational Partnerships Will Strengthen Health Systems
To minimize potentially devastating social and economic impact and protect their workforces, multi-national companies should consider the following opportunities to support Sub-Saharan African countries’ COVID-19 response:
1. Partner with local governments and key stakeholders.
In battling the pandemic, corporations can work with local governments and key stakeholders to bolster local health systems to respond in a crisis. Multinational corporations offer efficient systems, supply chains, innovation, technologies, and subject-matter expertise to assist the public sector. For example, UPS partnered with Zipline, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and the government of Rwanda to implement a national drone delivery program for blood transfusion in Rwanda, leveraging UPS’s logistics expertise. Companies should consider forming partnerships early to ensure that the local health system is prepared when a crisis hits.
“If a company has a major presence in country or a market, it should have a huge interest in partnering with the governments as early as possible,” said Professor John Monahan, the Senior Advisor for Global Health to the Georgetown University President and past Special Advisor for Global Health Partnerships to the US Department of State. “One thing we've learned is that there’s a premium to acting early and decisively.” Through early action, regions can uncover and prepare for the potential impacts of COVID-19 in partnership with the private sector.
In response to the Ebola outbreak, 48 private companies with operations in West Africa formed the Ebola Private Sector Mobilization Group to protect the health and jobs of their local staff. They partnered to provide a united response to tackle Ebola, including financial and in-kind donations, as well as health systems strengthening. The companies also worked with the World Health Organization to curb the epidemic.
2. Leverage business acumen and infrastructure to bolster the public health response.
Multinational companies house a wealth of expertise and technical resources that could strengthen local response to COVID-19. By offering their proficiency in technical areas ranging from big data to supply chain, companies augment the public response to ensure that public health systems are best equipped to meet society’s needs.
Coca-Cola uses its beverage supply chain expertise in a surprising way—for lifesaving last mile medication delivery in rural areas via its “Project Last Mile” program. The Global Fund and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation noted that their vaccine supply chains suffered from bottlenecks in remote parts of Africa, hindering their ability to administer vaccines and protect lives. They recognized that Coca-Cola had one of the strongest supply chains and labor networks in Africa and the world, so they asked Coca-Cola for help. The beverage company agreed, beginning a partnership that has lasted more than ten years and through which they have supported health systems strengthening in eight African countries. Monahan added, “Assuming that the country is impacted [by COVID-19], a multinational corporation should find ways to partner around the delivery of care and provide infrastructure support, whether in supply chain or information technologies, as they have done in the past.”
3. Bolster local health systems.
Companies should consider using their resources to strengthen the care workers and local communities receive by directly investing in healthcare delivery and infrastructure. Local hospitals and clinics serve as the front line to educate the public, prevent the spread of disease, and care for the ill.
According to the World Bank, Sub-Saharan life expectancy is among the lowest in the world at 61 years old, reflecting many countries’ weak systems to address health challenges. Although studies suggest that individuals above 60 years old suffer the highest mortality rate for COVID-19, Sub-Saharan Africa should still be worried. Many local health care systems already lack the capacity (in terms of hospital beds, providers, or medical equipment) to care for their populations’ existing health needs. With the addition of a highly contagious and damaging disease, systems will fracture. Italy’s health system is already breaking under the test of COVID-19—doctors must now decide which patients will live and which will die because they lack the resources to care for everyone.
Companies that operate in an affected area can work with the local government to improve disease surveillance capacity and strengthen health systems and responses, protecting their workers and local communities. Some regions may need support in monitoring disease spread, training frontline and community health workers on COVID-19 prevention and treatment, expanding hospitals in anticipation of large patient volumes, and bringing in auxiliary medical personnel to treat sick patients.
For example, ExxonMobil received acclaim from the Corporate Alliance on Malaria in Africa for their work to fight malaria, reaching 125 million people through its programs. The company develops initiatives to prevent and control diseases in regions where it operates, including the construction of health facilities and trainings for health workers on prevention and treatment. The program has been so successful that ExxonMobil has not had a single employee or contractor malaria-related death since 2007.
4. Make direct financial investments or donations.
Direct donations can also be an important tool for multinational companies to fight against the spread of COVID-19 in Sub-Saharan Africa. During the Ebola outbreak of 2013-2016, the private sector pledged $300M in cash and in-kind contributions, ranging from medical products to infrastructure. Companies should work with the recipient to ensure their donation meets the community’s needs.
Monahan said, “There may be an opportunity for smart, up-front donations if the company has the infrastructure or the resources. This would need to be a country-by-country decision and would be hard to predict in advance how many companies would act.” Depending on the pain point of the health system, contributions may enable health systems or local clinicians to provide improved care.
We’re already seeing early actions to fight COVID-19 on a global scale from multinational companies. Because this is a new disease with no known cure, pharmaceutical companies such as Johnson and Johnson and Sanofi are partnering with others to find a vaccine. With COVID-19 upending health systems and economies, governments and multinational companies must act fast to strengthen healthcare in Sub-Saharan Africa and protect populations—or exacerbate the global damage already unfolding.