On 15th July, we held our second webinar, looking at how Covid-19 is changing the landscape for product donations. Speakers included EJ Ashbourne (Executive Director, Partnership for Quality Medical Donations), Mark Repath (Customer Service Manager, Janssen) and Marissa Pledger (Project Manager, Panzi Hospital and Foundations).

This year, we’ve been running a virtual Summer Series of webinars to replace our traditional Sharing Best Practice Workshop. The first, on 1st July, took an in-depth look at the value of partnership during Covid-19 (click here to catch up). For the second, we examined how the global pandemic is changing the landscape for product donations.

Our first speaker, EJ Ashbourne, leads the Partnership for Quality Medical Donations (PQMD), a coalition of 41 companies and NGOs.  

EJ identified some trends emerging early on, including price wars for products and a pivoting of NGOs and companies. “Local regulations were mandating what could and couldn’t be shipped, so there was a real push [for] a rationalisation of regulatory environments [to] continue to support the global community.” As international staff withdrew, workforce gaps became more evident. “It was clear cash was going to be critical,” said EJ, “large-scale donations specifically for affected communities [to] support their own facilities and purchase personal protective equipment” together with diagnostics, vaccines and therapeutics. Many companies within PQMD have “allocated hundreds of millions of dollars for R&D, capacity building, community support, health worker training and more”.

How will trends impact the product donation community? There may not be a huge increase in total product donations, EJ believes, “but there will be an increase in cash donations,” and in initiatives such as patient assistance programmes. Product delivery might be disrupted, but traditional donation commitments will remain constant: “Companies are really focused on consistently being able to provide those kinds of resources.”

Has Covid-19 been a catalyst for change? “Donations were always meant to be a stopgap measure,” EJ pointed out, but in these times, companies are becoming more strategic about donations, “looking at long-term commitments to individual disease states and figuring out how to buoy donation programmes through capacity building” and helping countries manage their own resources. 

Trusted partners are critical in every area of trend, she added. “IHP is one of our major partners, working to support the global response, and the supply chain. It’s figured out how to get products to where they need to be around the world, despite all the trends I’ve mentioned.”

Mark Repath, customer service manager at Janssen, was our second speaker. He reflected on how the pandemic caused companies to “go into overdrive a bit” to manage concerns such as securing supply, protecting vulnerable people, supporting the workforce and managing finances. Now they need to refocus efforts toward product donation, he said. “A global pandemic generally brings out a local focus, with an intense scrutiny as to what the company is doing to help. Possibly donations have been shelved or deprioritised when energy is focused on other things going on.” He urged companies:

  • Not to make donations a low priority
  • To learn from our response to Covid-19 – are the right teams working together already?
  • To communicate and celebrate what’s already being done  

Janssen has donated some 260,000 units of product during lockdown, with more than a million people benefitting; it’s also worked with IHP to continue to run a global WHO programme. In addition, “we’ve also been able to continue our oncology donations throughout the crisis, with IHP.”

Building and extending key partnerships is vital, Mark believes. “Our biggest partner is IHP. It has been a constant throughout the pandemic... remaining agile, and committed to making sure people receive medicines. IHP is available and ready to help.” 

Marissa Pledger is project manager for DRC-based Panzi Hospital and Foundations, created by Nobel Peace Prizewinner Dr Denis Mukwege and an IHP partner for the last two years. She related some of the impacts Covid-19 has had on the work of the hospital, which usually sees around 100 patients per day, and has 430 beds, a large portion for survivors of sexual violence. 

The hospital has 17 ventilators, and the Congolese government chose it as one of two to treat Covid-19 patients, with around 14 patients arriving each day and about 30 people dying so far. Fear, says Marissa, has caused “a significant reduction in other patients coming”. Fewer patients means less revenue for the hospital, making it difficult to pay staff salaries. In the early days, too, a large proportion of those becoming unwell were medical staff. “There’s definitely been a learning curve to get people to wear PPE appropriately.”

Treatment and testing are other concerns. “There’s a host of problems, mainly in getting materials to Panzi, which can be complicated. “The Congo is a gigantic country, and there are no direct roads between Kinshasa and Bukavu. It’s usually easier to come through Rwanda, but you have to go through some ground transport and the border can be quite difficult.” In May, IHP managed to get a very large shipment of Essential Health Packs to Panzi to cover supply needs during the pandemic.  

“I want to thank IHP for everything it has done for us,” Marissa added. “In regular times it is difficult for us get the medicines we need, but during Covid-19, with border closures and the decrease in flights, all supplies in Eastern Congo – from medical supplies to just regular food – are significantly diminished. These packs have allowed us to keep our pharmacy pretty well stocked during this time.”