Q&A Carlos Zarco

President of the International Health Co-operative Organisation (IHCO)

How was the year 2020 for the health co-operatives and for IHCO?

The year 2020 has been very difficult for everyone. Co-operatives around the world have been hit hard by the spread of Covid-19. The health sector was one of the most affected. And health co-operatives, in addition to having to make enormous efforts to respond to the social and economic crisis they faced, also had to adapt their facilities and action protocols practically overnight, in very difficult, complex circumstances.

The International Health Cooperatives Organisation has tried at all times to support and provide services to its members, facilitating contact and exchanges of experiences between co-operatives. During these times of great uncertainty, in the face of a health emergency with many unknowns, it was important for health professionals and managers to share first-hand information about the new coronavirus.

What were your main projects?

As I was saying, in such an adverse situation, co-operation between co-operatives was essential. Health co-operatives faced a totally new situation and had to come up with innovative solutions to meet the challenges posed by the coronavirus.

IHCO became a platform for members to exchange knowledge and learn from each other. That is why we have focused on bringing members together through online discussions, such as the one entitled “Health cooperatives duringCcovid-19 and in times of crisis”, held in June; or “The response of health cooperatives to Covid-19 in the Americas”, held in September.

We have also accompanied and supported new initiatives, such as the health co-operatives that are taking their first steps in Cameroon or in Serbia, where a legislative initiative is being promoted to enable the development of health cooperatives that improve access to health in rural areas.

How have health co-operatives helped their communities during the pandemic?

The pandemic has caused a health crisis that has put health systems in most countries on the edge, and in many cases has brought facilities to the brink of collapse. Co-operatives have contributed in many cases to managing the health emergency, in some with great efficiency, such as the Italian co-operative Gulliver, which managed to overcome the first wave of the pandemic without registering any infection in its care centres for the elderly.

Numerous co-operatives expanded their hospitals’ capacity and facilities and made these available to the health authorities to serve the population at times of great demand.

They also launched initiatives to inform and guide citizens in a situation of great uncertainty, especially in the first months of the pandemic. For example in Spain, the co-operatives that form part of the Espriu Foundation created a telephone service to answer questions about Covid-19, and a website with resources to overcome problems related to confinement.

In Argentina, health co-operatives launched a campaign to inform the population about measures to avoid contagion. And in Japan, Hew Coop developed actions to prevent isolation and loneliness among the elderly.

Other actions have been of an economic nature, such as deferring payments or granting loans or aid, as the Colombian co-operative Coomeva or the Brazilian co-operative Unimed have done.

What could 2021 bring for the sector? What can you tell us about your future projects?

The Covid-19 pandemic is leading to a shift in paradigm in different areas of the society and the economy. But without a doubt, health is one of the sectors that will undergo the most changes in the near future. It is an issue that is high on the agenda of many governments. Countries are reviewing their health systems in order to cope with the ageing of the population, or inequities in access to health. This context of renewal and transformation represents a great opportunity for the development of co-operative healthcare as a strategic ally of governments and development agencies.

At IHCO we are going to continue working to publicise the full potential of health co-operatives. Our goal is that those responsible for health policies, both locally, nationally or internationally, are aware of the advantages that co-operatives provide in this sector. In this sense, a key milestone was the recognition of co-operatives by the UN as a valuable mechanism to achieve Universal Health Coverage.

In practice, this translates into specific programmes, for example the one that has been recently launched by the Indian government to finance improvements in 52 co-operative hospitals, which will increase their capacity to assist the population.

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