COVID-19 pandemic highlights the importance of health-tech - opinion

Building these bridges is vital to ensure better preparedness for future pandemics and health crises.

A TECHNICIAN loads lab specimens onto a drone at the Ziv Medical Center in Safed in October. (photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
A TECHNICIAN loads lab specimens onto a drone at the Ziv Medical Center in Safed in October.
(photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
 COVID-19 has caused unprecedented disruptions, decimating economies and wreaking havoc on healthcare systems in developed and developing nations alike. To cope with the mountainous challenges facing their healthcare systems, countries worldwide rapidly launched digital technologies, which proved instrumental in overcoming these tribulations. As a result, there has been an exponential growth of the health-tech sector, with tele-medicine, digital diagnostics, and home monitoring solutions deployed at an accelerated pace to meet urgent and evolving needs.
While Israel’s successful vaccination campaign has allowed it to reopen its economy gradually, other parts of the world struggle to distribute or to gain access to vaccines at all. These disparities are on display globally but are especially visible in Asia. While some Asian nations have done a remarkable job at handling the crisis, others in the continent are still struggling. Like Indonesia and India, some countries were hit especially hard and are expected to endure a prolonged economic recovery.
Israel must develop strategic partnerships with Asian countries, share best practices, export its innovations, and use its health-tech capabilities to assist struggling countries like Indonesia and the Philippines. Building these bridges is vital to ensure better preparedness for future pandemics and health crises. Moreover, it is crucial for helping countries that are at risk of falling even further behind.

Shifting global dynamics


Traditionally, the world has looked to the United States in times of crisis, but during the pandemic the US has been notably preoccupied and absent. The new administration is sending reassuring signals, like joining the Covax initiative, to rebuild trust. While that is a significant first step, it is still far from filling the global leadership void that the previous administration expanded. 
The European Union, for its part, has been facing difficulties accessing Western-made vaccines in a timely fashion, leading member states to consider looking elsewhere. Recognizing the value of medical diplomacy, rising powers like Russia, China and India are actively working to fill the void by providing vaccines and personal protective equipment (PPE) to countries in need.
Cognizant that they can no longer depend on the superpowers alone, medium and smaller powers such as Israel, Australia, Singapore and Taiwan should work together to establish new cooperation platforms. These can help create independent capabilities and minimize smaller countries’ vulnerability to fallouts and pressures stemming from the superpower competition.

Closing gaps through digital healthcare


Closing healthcare gaps, enabling health service delivery, and developing digital infrastructure are major challenges that countries face worldwide. Specialized fields such as artificial intelligence and 3D printing can bring the much-needed local capability to customize patient treatment and allow for better, cheaper, and more accessible care.
Deploying new technologies can reduce pressure on under-resourced health workers and increase access to healthcare in remote and less developed regions. From fast and cheap COVID-19 testing to machine learning for analytic procedures and robust mass vaccination campaigns, capable countries should share their technological innovations and healthcare knowledge with nations that lack this know-how.
The demand for these and other healthcare solutions will only grow, as nations are interested in increasing their self-reliance and are forced to manage rising healthcare costs, an aging population and the risk of future global pandemics. For some, strategies to optimize their healthcare systems are already underway. Others will need assistance.

Connecting through health-tech innovation


As a world leader in health-tech and community-based healthcare, Israel has a significant role to play in this endeavor. With around 1,500 companies in healthcare and life sciences, Israel has the capabilities to export its knowledge and innovations worldwide, especially to Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Israeli innovations such as TytoCare, a remote, on-demand medical testing and diagnosis platform, or Aidoc, which offers a quick analysis of medical scans through AI technology, can upgrade healthcare systems and increase their cost-effectiveness.
The Asian medtech market is already one of the world’s largest and is growing briskly. But for Israel, this is not merely an opportunity to access a new lucrative market; it can save lives and have a lasting impact on people’s quality of life across one of the world’s most important regions. By engaging with leading regional innovators such as Singapore, new strategic partnerships can be built that will help Israel better prepare for the future. Even further, by assisting struggling countries, Israel can bring much-needed relief and reshape its global image.
COVID-19 has been a pressing reminder of the importance of health-tech in defining countries’ ability to manage the pandemic. To prepare for future challenges and health emergencies, global cooperation on health-tech will be critical. Asian countries could be the ideal partners, but Israel must take the initiative.
Dr. Gedaliah Afterman is head of the Asia Policy Program at the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. Theresa Hoffmann is a research fellow at the AEI Asia Policy Program at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.