Bridging the Healthcare Gap in a Global Pandemic

January 12, 2021 By Troy Williams

As hospitals around the world battle the COVID-19 pandemic, a small nonprofit in Houston, Texas is helping to lead the global response amidst this crisis. Dedicated to supplying medical equipment to underserved areas worldwide where items such as gloves are a luxury, Medical Bridges is focused on providing clinics and hospitals with personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical supplies needed to fight this deadly virus. 

At the helm of this global operation is Walter Ulrich, president and CEO of Medical Bridges and a member of USGLC’s Texas State Advisory Committee. I recently spoke with Mr. Ulrich on the impact of COVID-19 and how Medical Bridges is stepping up to help at home and abroad.

Medical Bridges works year-round to bridge the healthcare gap by procuring, repurposing and distributing high quality medical supplies and equipment to medically underserved populations worldwide. How has COVID-19 impacted your work and the situation in the developing world?    

Mr. Ulrich: In 2020, Medical Bridges sent 149 tons of lifesaving medical equipment and supplies to where they were desperately needed in 20 developing countries. At the height of this crisis, Medical Bridges also donated PPE to rural clinics and charitable hospitals in 33 counties across Texas and to the Navajo Nation in Arizona. Another seven 40-foot maritime containers were recently shipped to Pakistan.

Serving 88 countries around the world, there are many complexities for an organization like Medical Bridges. Meeting the customs requirements of each country or making sure that the products, equipment and supplies arrive at the destination clinic can be challenging. When you’re shipping 40-foot maritime containers, the process can be complex and, as a result of COVID-19, the difficulty has only increased.

As an example, Medical Bridges serves the country of Angola where the maternal mortality rate is 34 times higher than the United States and infant mortality is 4 or 5 times higher than the United States. We put together a container of materials to help mothers and babies survive the first 4 weeks, which dramatically increases the survival rate of both mother and child. We packaged that container and sent it in July and it just arrived in Angola in mid-November. Shipping is much more complicated under these conditions.

In 2020, Medical Bridges sent 149 tons of lifesaving medical equipment and supplies to where they were desperately needed in 20 developing countries.

The COVID-19 crisis is sending shockwaves around the globe and low-income developing countries are in a particularly vulnerable position. From your perspective, how soon will it be before developing countries find relief?

Mr. Ulrich: Here in the United States, a vaccine is already being distributed nationwide and we are hoping that this pandemic will ultimately subside in the near future. But that’s not necessarily true around the world. The impact of COVID-19 in developing countries is likely going to continue for another 2 years. So, in addition to the other healthcare issues, COVID-19 may remain a challenge for an already under-resourced community.

So it’s really important that as we solve this pandemic and grow a significant surplus of materials and medical equipment focused on helping COVID-19 patients, that we also be smart about not throwing that stuff away or putting it in the warehouse to gather dust until its useful life is over, but donating it to organizations like Medical Bridges so that we can get that shipped out and save lives overseas for people who don’t have the capacity that we have in our country.

Everyone in the U.S. who is older than 5 years old will remember this pandemic for the rest of their lives. Much like we remember the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster and 9/11, this is a moment that people will never forget. What we want around the world, is when people think about this moment, they also remember how the U.S. helped them and saved lives.

The global impact of COVID-19 is still quite daunting despite the rapid vaccine development. How can America actively lead in responding to the pandemic?

Mr. Ulrich: I believe $20 billion is the least we can do [in our foreign aid budget], and I would recommend more. Everyone in the U.S. who is older than 5 years old will remember this pandemic for the rest of their lives. Much like we remember the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster and 9/11, this is a moment that people will never forget.

What we want around the world, is when people think about this moment, they also remember how the U.S. helped them and saved lives. Most Americans won’t forget when President George W. Bush was standing on the wreckage in New York and the iron worker gave him a flag. We want to plant that same American flag in the minds of those we help around the world, so in 20 or 30 years from now, when people reflect on the pandemic, they also see that American flag and remember the goodwill of this nation.

This is not about Medical Bridges; this is about our nation. When this pandemic emerged in Wuhan, Medical Bridges shipped 10,000 or 20,000 masks because they were experiencing a shortage. Once COVID-19 hit the US and the Chinese gained more control over the spread, they shipped 50,000 high quality masks to us through The George H.W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations. The goodwill on a people-to-people basis creates goodwill nation to nation.

To learn more about Medical Bridges, please visit their website at https://www.medicalbridges.org/