Working Together to Create Greater Equity in Healthcare

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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On 14 December, 2020 the OECD brought together a multi-sectoral panel to discuss the urgent need for a new societal contract for global recovery from COVID-19. The facts are undisputed: COVID-19 has increased poverty and widened inequalities around the globe, and the panel’s discussions shed light on just how concerning this is across different sectors.

Health equity is an especially important topic in the context of a global pandemic, but many societies have persistently failed to protect vulnerable populations. The economically and socially disadvantaged, older populations in long-term care, low-paid or low-skilled workers: these are the people at greater risk of job insecurity, and consequently face poor health outcomes. For example, the burden of COVID-19 has disproportionally impacted certain populations and has shed light on inequalities that plague healthcare systems. In the United States, the pandemic has highlighted structural racism. Troubling statistics demonstrate the high burden that COVID-19 has placed on communities of colour in the United States: Black, Latinx and Indigenous populations are more than twice as likely to die from COVID-19 compared to White populations.

More on the Forum Network: How COVID-19 has reversed longer-term trends in the social contract in OECD countries, at least for now by James Manyika and Anu Madgavkar, McKinsey Global Institute

Another display of health inequity is shown by the high COVID-19 case count and deaths in long-term care facilities, pointing to urgent care gaps in this sector as well as the protection of elderly populations. On average, the number of deaths in long-term care homes due to COVID-19 reached almost 50% of all country deaths—and in some cases was as high as 80%.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has put a magnifying glass on social and health inequities that have left some communities at greater risk

Furthermore, while the accelerated development of the COVID-19 vaccine has been a significant achievement, our next big challenge will be to ensure access and distribution, especially across low- and middle-income countries. In terms of vaccine coverage, the Gates Foundation has estimated that the pandemic has set the world back by about 25 years in only 25 weeks, with childhood vaccination rates dropping below levels last seen in the 1990s. To ensure equitable distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine, we need strong access frameworks such as COVAX—the vaccines pillar of the multi-sectoral collaboration ACT-Accelerator, of which Bristol Myers Squibb is a part—and to engage citizens, building trust to ensure vaccine acceptability and uptake among communities. 

Health equity has been a focus of the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation’s work for over 20 years. During COVID-19, the Foundation is just as committed to the fight for health equity. Given the urgency of addressing health disparities and inequities demonstrated during the pandemic, in August 2020 the BMS Company and Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation committed a combined USD 300 million to accelerate and expand health equity and diversity and inclusion efforts in the United States and elsewhere in the world. We also have made a commitment to ensure continued access to BMS medicines for those who lost their insurance coverage in the United States as a result of unemployment due to the pandemic.

Read the OECD policy response Building a coherent response for a sustainable post-COVID-19 recovery

Photo: Kieran Jones

The global COVID-19 pandemic has put a magnifying glass on social and health inequities that have left some communities at greater risk of contracting the virus or experiencing serious illness and poorer outcomes. Much work still needs to be done to remove ingrained structural barriers that hinder equity in our systems, and in healthcare. We must all work together to address these challenges, and the pharmaceutical industry has a key role to play in driving these solutions.

Related topics

Tackling COVID-19 Health Income Inequality

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John Damonti

President, Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation; BMS Patient Assistance Foundation

John Damonti is the President of the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation and the Patient Assistance Foundation funded by the Bristol-Myers Squibb Company, a global bio-pharmaceutical Company. John has more than 30 years of experience working in the areas of health policy, government affairs and social responsibility. The mission of the BMS Foundation is to seek innovative approaches to reducing health disparities by strengthening community-based healthcare worker capacity, medical care and community-based supportive services, and by mobilizing communities to fight disease. John began his career as Manager of Community and Government Relations for Mutual of New York. He was also Director of the Primerica Foundation (now part of Citigroup) and before joining Bristol-Myers Squibb served as Director of State Government Relations for Ciba-Geigy Corporation (now Novartis). In addition to his professional accomplishments, he is a member of the Board of the New Academy of Medicine where he is also a Fellow and the advisory boards of Seed of Africa and NOMI Network. John received his Master’s in Social Work Policy from Fordham University and has also been awarded honorary doctorate degrees from Fordham University and the Baylor College of Medicine.