The Covid-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented effect on every aspect of humanity in general and particularly the global healthcare system. However, Qatar caught the attention of International Development Partners (IDPs) and world leaders in the wake of the devastating economic and health effects of the novel coronavirus.
The World Health Organization (WHO), for example, lauded Qatar for its comprehensive efforts to control the virus outbreak. While the world today is mourning the deaths of 6,97,289 people (as of August 04, 2020) due to coronavirus (which accounts for 3.78 percent of the overall total Covid-19 cases), the death toll in Qatar so far has only been 177, accounting for just 0.16 percent of the total number of cases reported in the gulf country.
This ratio is one of the lowest in the world.
The country's approach to tackling the Covid-19 crisis deserves attention from both the academic and public policy perspective as wider lessons may be found to benefit other countries and institutions not only during the current crisis but also, importantly when preparing for future risks.
Qatar's response to Covid-19: A case study
Qatar by and large can be described as a country of migrants. The total population of this gulf state is around 2.8 million of which migrant population is more than 2 million, which roughly accounts for 89 percent of the total population.
In addition to engaged political leadership, which has been on the top of things by maintaining a daily and close watch over the fight against Covid-19 in the country, institutional capacity appeared to be the most important factor in curbing the death toll in Qatar.
Niranjan Chandra (54) is one of the 111322 patients (as of 04 August 2020) who recovered from coronavirus related illness there.
Here is his story: he visited the local pharmacy with the symptoms of Covid-19 and took medicine for two days. As the symptoms worsened, he called for an ambulance and was taken to the Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC) where he was immediately attended to and diagnosed as corona positive.
After 14 days of intensive treatment, he was sent to quarantine for another 11 days. He was eventually released after two consecutive tests showing negative results. He expressed overall satisfaction with the food, accommodations, nursing, and medical treatment at the HMC and during the quarantine.
This case illustrated how Qatar has saved the lives of corona patients by ensuring timely and intensive institutional care. An informal interview with one HMC-affiliated doctor revealed two important issues.
First, Qatar used a combination of medicines that had been earlier used against a different virus. Second, Qatar has been able to provide timely and proper medical care to the patients. Minister of Public Health Dr Hanan Mohamed al-kuwari added that early detection has helped Qatar keep mortality rates very low.
What made the real difference is the institutional preparedness and capacity to address a crisis. Over the past few weeks, Qatar has set up several new facilities, such as field hospitals, isolation and quarantine areas, and expanded testing facilities and distribution points for sanitisers and masks for the public and PPE for medical and paramedical professionals.
Even amidst a crisis, the country remained sensitive to the special needs of the patients. Qatar, for example, appointed Bangladeshi doctors on an emergency basis based on the proportion of Bangladeshi patients who are migrant workers in the country and were admitted to the hospital.
It is noteworthy that Qatar provided treatment to every resident including those who may not have currently valid work permits and health cards. This was done out of respect for international instruments, namely the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, 1990, and the ILO's Decent Work Agenda, 2008.
Since the outbreak of Covid-19 in China, the Ministry of Public Health undertook various preventive and curative measures; one innovative measure was the establishment of telemedicine facilities and home delivery of medicines for patients to limit face-to-face exposure to reduce the risk of infection spread which is supposed to be an effective way to provide healthcare service.
It also undertook special measures for elderly people (55 and above) including consultancy and awareness campaign over telephone daily.
Investment in institutional development in Qatar
With the increase of Covid-19 positive cases, Qatar has been able to deploy required resources, both in terms of manpower and institutions, quickly and effectively. It is important to note that Qatar has long been investing in health care and related social welfare facilities and has made impressive strides since the 1990s.
Spending in its healthcare system has continued to rise. In 2018, Qatar, whose population is around 2,883,000, spent $6.2 billion toward its healthcare, a rise of 25 percent from 2014. Increased investment in health infrastructure improved life expectancy and better health outcomes which have resulted Qatar's health system is ranked 5th best in the world.
Qatar ranked first for doctors per capita, and fourth for satisfaction with healthcare. Spending on healthcare in Qatar accounted for 2.2 percent of the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2014 which increased to 3.7 percent in 2018.
In pursuit of what is called "holistic development," Qatar has underscored the need for developing social development institutions and focused on this need in the implementation of its national and global development plan and agenda.
To achieve the relevant SDG targets, for example, it promulgated the Qatar National Vision (QNV) 2030. The human development Pillar of QNV expresses Qatar's ambition to develop a "healthy population, physically and mentally." In line with this ambition, Qatar formulated and allocated the necessary resources for its National Health Strategy (2018-2022), to build a health and 'model care' system.
Lately, Qatar has planned to hire 500 new nurses to provide continued follow-up care to patients discharged from hospitals in the recent past. An assistant minister of health affairs told one of the authors that Qatar was planning to further develop its health system "following the Singapore model."
Lessons and reflections
The Covid-19 case of Qatar offers at least two important insights and lessons. First, the systematic investment in developing, improving, and consolidating social development institutions (notably health care facilities) and the maintenance of sound, client-focused health services have been instrumental in curving the death toll from Covid-19.
Second, good, long-range, strategically focused preparations mainly in the form of the careful formulation and delivery of development plans—particularly those linked to SDGs—have been quite useful while addressing this disaster. In the wake of Covid-19, nations should start preparing for the next pandemic. The Qatar example may provide helpful suggestions in this regard.
Muhammad Mustafizur Rahaman, Ph.D, is currently, Counselor (Labour), Embassy of the People's Republic of Bangladesh, Doha, Qatar, and former International Research Fellow, Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, Faculty of Economics, Kyoto University, Japan.
Niaz Ahmed Khan, Ph.D, is Senior Professor and former Chairman, Department of Development Studies, University of Dhaka; Senior Academic Adviser, BRAC Institute of Governance and Development; and Chairman, Bangladesh Tropical Forest Conservation (Arannayak) Foundation.
Robert D. Eldridge, Ph.D, is Director, Global Risk Mitigation Foundation, Honolulu, Hawaii, and former Advisor, Asia-Pacific Alliance for Disaster Management, Tokyo, Japan. Previously, he was a tenured associate professor at the Osaka University Graduate School of International Public Policy.