The Intel chairman opined that the best thing to do is avoid a situation where we need to use ventilators in countries with large populations and relatively underdeveloped healthcare systems
Keeping people healthy by creating awareness and imposing strict measures to maintain social distancing is the only way out for the populous countries like Bangladesh to tackle Covid-19, said Dr Omar Ishrak, the Bangladeshi-born CEO of Medtronic and chairman of technology giant Intel Corporation.
"Government measures to keep people away from each other, force some discipline around wearing protective gear, and convince people to wash hands make sense - these are the best options for countries with large populations and relatively underdeveloped healthcare system," he explained during a conversation with Ejaj Ahmad, the President of BYLC.
"If the rates of disease and eventual escalation reach that of countries in Western Europe, it will be very difficult to manage no matter how many ventilators you have," said Ishrak, while addressing the South Asia Youth Resilience Summit 2020 organised by the Bangladesh Youth Leadership Centre (BYLC) on April 16-18.
Due to the ongoing pandemic, the summit was organised online and the Medtronic CEO joined from his home in California, USA.
In response to the global shortage of ventilators, Medtronic, a global leader in medical technology, has open sourced one of its portable ventilator models so that others can come forward to increase production of the lifesaving equipment.
While many tech companies, start-ups, and academic institutions around the world are working day and night to manufacture ventilators using Medtronic's design specifications, its CEO reminded that ventilators alone would not solve the crisis.
"Ventilator is just one thing, you need an intensive care unit (ICU) system as well. You need trained doctors. Just getting the equipment is not going to solve the whole problem," warned Ishrak.
Of course, that does not mean we should not try to make as many ventilators as possible, he clarified.
"But that has to go in line with setting up temporary hospitals and ICU beds, training healthcare professionals and so on."
Ishrak pointed out that sourcing of components for producing ventilators has become an issue. There are multiple components of the machine that have single sources.
So, if there is a fight over that component, no matter where the ventilator is manufactured, it still is one ventilator, said Ishrak.
However, he mentioned that attempts to diversify the sources are being made. He particularly named two Asian companies from Taiwan and Vietnam that are making tremendous progress in producing single-sourced components.
Ishrak pointed out that Walton from Bangladesh, and Tata from India are also preparing to manufacture ventilators, and Medtronic is trying to source components for them while maintaining its own production.
Asked if cheap ventilators manufactured by start-ups could solve the crisis, the Medtronic chief executive said high-end ventilators with monitoring systems are required in Covid-19 situation where people need to be intubated.
Ventilators are invasive machines, parts of which go into the patients' lungs. So, they need to be sophisticated.
Ishrak said countries need to ensure three things altogether to manage Covid-19 care. There should be awareness among people about how the disease can be treated, there needs to be enough trained people who know how to use ventilators and who to use it on, and there should be hospitals and ICU beds.
He highlighted that this unfortunate outbreak is an opportunity for emerging markets to come forward to ensure that these services are available.
In countries with large populations and relatively underdeveloped healthcare systems, the best thing to do is avoid a situation where we need to use ventilators, Ishrak opined.
While admitting that prolonged lockdowns will create another crisis for the poor in terms of food, Ishrak thinks it is a solvable problem.
"Good organisations can deal with that. That is in our control. But none of us can control Covid-19 at this moment."
"Feeding people, making sure people are organised, and maintaining social distancing – these are all up to us," he added.
Taking example from the cooperation on creating new solutions for increased ventilator production, Ishrak pointed out that in three of four weeks' time, Medtronic had put organisations together to build products and source components.
"If we did it through proper contracts, business agreements and joint ventures, it would take two years. So, crossing country boundaries, and crossing company boundaries were effective in solving a problem.
"Similarly, everyone needs to cross societal and political boundaries to help the people working in the informal sector, who are worst affected by the lockdown. We also need to be creative about it," he added.
The Intel Corporation chairman thinks all companies, big or small, should come forward to help the society in a boundary-less fashion if they do not have liquidity problem.
For those who have liquidity issues, they are going to struggle at this point, but he assured that somewhere, there is enough money in the system. Finding a way to access that money is what those companies need to focus on.
Ishrak said Covid-19 outbreak is temporary, and it will pass. It may take three months or a year, but it will not be there forever.
"But the chronic diseases need care forever. This crisis has increased awareness, and we should take advantage of it and invest in longer-term healthcare system."
Ishrak grew up in Dhaka. He completed his secondary education from St Joseph Higher Secondary School. He did his bachelor's and PhD in electrical engineering from the University of London, King's College.
He was named Chairman of the Intel board of directors in January 2020.
Ishrak has been serving as the chairman and chief executive officer of Medtronic since 2011. Prior to joining Medtronic, he spent 16 years in various roles at General Electric Company and GE Healthcare Systems.