What changes has the Ministry implemented to adapt to the pandemic?
We had to adapt to numerous changes this year, however one of the main changes was a having to invent faster and stronger shift towards the use of technologies in carrying our routine practices. For example, some routine clinics started using virtual formats where patients minimize their exposure and don't need to go to health care centers. In Oman, we have a strong disease surveillance system for early detection before this pandemic, thanks to our experiences with MERS and then with H1N1 in 2009, the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to further enhance this system. This culminated in the development of the Tarassud platform, a platform for registering the cases, following up their results, and tracking individuals suspected to be positive. Learning from previous experiences and that of other countries, we also started preemptive action. This started with the establishment by H.M. Sultan Haitham bin Tariq of the Supreme Committee, which brought together the various sectors involved in responding to a possible pandemic. Cross-sectoral collaboration ensured having strong governance in decision making processes. Additionally, we secured all points of entry, too, as a measure to enhance the surveillance system. Doing so helped us identify and manage cases from the beginning. In line with preemptively securing medical necessities, we also started working on expanding our ICU beds capacity. At the onset of the pandemic, we had 144 ICU beds in the country, but we later added 220 new ICU beds to that, in addition to 30-35 ICU beds provided by the private sector. We also worked on securing sufficient supplies of personal protective equipment for our staff and ventilators. As a result, we thankfully never had a significant shortage, and we were successful despite the many challenges in international trade. We also started working more closely with our partners, mainly the private sector and civil society. And started communicating more frequently, openly, and clearly with the public, because an emergency at this scale cannot be managed by institutions without the public's support. And the public has been largely cooperative. We also fostered new partnerships with civil society, where volunteers helped health institutions in delivering medications to the homes of high-risk groups, such as elderly, or those who are immuno-compromised or living with chronic illnesses. We would not have been able to handle the surge in cases if it were not for our strong network of healthcare institutions. As such, this has reinforced our commitment to further strengthening this network and expanding it. Unfortunately, we have also learned during this pandemic that vaccine nationalism still prevails, and I do not see that changing anytime soon. Due to various reasons, rich countries were able to acquire large shares of the global vaccine production while poorer countries were unable to get sufficient amounts. It is important to remember that no one is safe until everyone is safe. In other areas, international cooperation has been instrumental in stemming the spread of the virus and in accelerating the results to effective vaccines. In Oman, we have decided from the beginning to provide free COVID-19 care to everyone, including expatriates—regardless of their status.
How did you continue to provide primary healthcare to patients during the pandemic?
During the pandemic, 94% of patients with chronic diseases still managed to get their medications. This was done through the maintenance of primary health services at designated centers (other than those designated to receive COVID-19 patients or suspect cases). The MOH team also came up with new initiatives such as virtual clinics, drive-through pharmacies, and an information call center. In addition, in cooperation with WHO and UNFPA, the MOH also launched a hotline for following up pregnant women and new mothers. With the Ministry of Social Development, mental health support lines were also launched for persons in quarantine, and they provided support in multiple languages. In the first year, we did not notice an increase in death rate for chronic diseases; we even saw a fall in death rates as a result of accidents because of the lockdown. In the end, the increase in death rates were not as high as we expected.
Where do you see the greatest opportunities for the private sector to invest in healthcare?
Oman offers a unique environment for investment in healthcare, from stability to natural landscapes, and from the well-established and well-governed healthcare system to the coherent and streamlined framework governing the relationships between public and private healthcare institutions. The healthcare system in Oman is strong across the six pillars of governance, and so any new investment will be embraced by this system. The private sector can capitalize on areas of healthcare that still need development in Oman. This includes specialized laboratory testing, which would alleviate the pressure from public laboratories, ad rehabilitation centers. Adding to that, the public health center can only expand so much. In partnership with the private sector, construction is currently ongoing at three hospitals at the moment: one with 700 beds in Salalah; one with 220 beds in Sohar; and one in Khasab. And we will still need to build five more hospitals after that, and we are looking for local and international partners to build them. The private sector can increase the national healthcare capacity and quality of specialization, which will reduce waiting times for patients and eventually reverse the flow of expenses on abroad treatments to local providers. On top of all, the private sector can seize the unique political position of the Sultanate in the region and its stability, and can envision establishing centers of excellence in the various fields, including wellness and metal health centers, to attract patients from across the region. The important thing is to show long term commitment and not to focus on short-term profit. My team would be pleased to meet with prospective investors and guide them through the process.
Looking beyond the pandemic, what are your objectives for this year?
The main objective is to maintain the achievements of the health sector in Oman. We have learned and are still learning may valuable lessons, and the MOH team has prepared a plan with what has been done and what can be done better in the future. We also want to maintain ongoing projects to expand health services throughout the country, such as the hospitals in Salalah, Sohar, and Khasab. And we will need to continue working towards turning the plans of building five more hospitals after that into a reality with local or international partners. Apart from that, it is of course a priority for us to continue striving towards more achievements for Oman in health. We launched a strategy in March to eliminate tuberculosis in Oman, and we will be the pilot program in the world. Additionally, we will continue working on putting the reduction of chronic diseases rates a priority and enhancing early diagnoses. At the international level, we had also launched the Global Health for Peace Initiative in 2018, through which we aim to leverage healthcare as a catalyst and bridge for peace and stability where there is conflict. Wherever you go, you will see that health professionals work together regardless of their political affiliations, because health is a human right. Our initial partner was Switzerland, but now there are many countries, and hopefully we can resume the work after the pandemic is over.