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Qatar, India and FIFA World Cups: The role of big sporting events in propelling digital health innovations to the centre of post-pandemic healthy city initiatives

Qatar, India and FIFA World Cups: The role of big sporting events in propelling digital health innovations to the centre of post-pandemic healthy city initiatives

By Manoj Kumar Pati
on December 8, 2022

It was a Sunday evening in Mumbai, end of October, when Spain edged past Colombia to retain the under-17 Women’s football World Cup.  In India – a country that loves cricket, already there was football fever, weeks before other countries and regions in the world!   Earlier in October, I had been listening (during a WHO FB Live chat) to Dalima Chhibber, an Indian women’s international and mental health advocate for the #ReachOut campaign, supported by the WHO and FIFA. Throughout the tournament,  FIFA highlighted the campaign on mental health awareness, with social media obviously being key.

Three weeks later the (football) action moved to Qatar with a not so welcoming note as the hosts lost to Ecuador in the opening match of the FIFA World Cup 2022, the first time in 92 years, and criticism of Qatar hosting this sporting extravaganza amidst human rights violations and media reports on migrant workers’ deaths and injuries (while building the stadiums). Some of these concerns are no doubt warranted. However, on the flip side, as some of you will know,  WHO, the State of Qatar and FIFA have teamed up to deliver ‘a Healthy 2022 World’ as part of a three-year partnership.   More in particular, the FIFA World Cup in Qatar aims to leave a legacy for sport and health for other nations hosting future mega sporting events. In addition, the State of Qatar is the first country in the Middle East to host the World Cup, a feat in itself, albeit during winter and while the COVID-19 pandemic is still not over.  

In the rest of this article, we’d like to focus a bit more on how Qatar is doing from a ‘Healthy Cities’ perspective. Indeed, it’s also an achievement when a month before the World Cup, all Qatari municipalities had already received WHO’s ‘Healthy City’ distinction. As a true testimonial of a multisectoral sustainable effort on health, environment and urban sustainability, this success highlights the partnership and collaboration among the various sectors of the state, to achieve a high quality of life and to improve health, well-being and sustainable development.

WHO recognizes cities as key operational partners in addressing health determinants and in response to the public health needs of the people. WHO’s Healthy Cities initiative aims to support countries to meet SDGs 3, 11 and 17 building partnerships between health and development partners for better urban governance for health and wellbeing. At the heart of these “healthy city” initiatives, which are typically based on a whole-of-society” (WoS) approach, are digital innovations. The latter play pivotal roles, and not just in Qatar. COVID-19 demonstrated more than ever the value of data and digital technologies to make cities more resilient to health emergencies. Reframing resilience in the local context is important; the feasibility and success of digital solutions utilised during the COVID-19 pandemic depended on the availability and intelligent use of high-quality data, the interoperability of systems, and the workforce’s digital skills. Actionable insights from data have helped city leaders coordinate with national health authorities and public and private healthcare providers to make informed decisions, prevent what is preventable, and prepare for what might be imminent.

Qatar is a frontrunner in the region when it comes to digital health implementation.  The country’s biggest success over the years has been the implementation of the Electronic Health Record (EHR) system, which connects primary, secondary, and tertiary hospitals. To a certain extent, one can compare this with India’s Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission (ABDM), which aims to develop the backbone necessary to support the integrated digital health infrastructure in India. The ABDM ecosystem showcases a WoS and Whole-of-Government (WoG) approach. While the (federated) architecture, interoperability and inclusiveness are perhaps hallmarks of ABDM, the creation of longitudinal health records of patients, unique patient IDs, facility registry, service provider registry, privacy and consent management, standardised EHR principles, and management of national portability are some of its features which bear many similarities to the Qatar system.

Which brings us back to Qatar and the World Cup. The country has been quite successful in making use of the World Cup forum to propagate digital health innovations and instrumentalize them in the effort towards building healthy cities. For instance, when Saudi Arabia played its opening match against Argentina (with the result you know!), the Middle East’s largest end-to-end digital health platform, Altibbi, launched a campaign focused on men’s preventive health and awareness of prostate & testicular cancer. More in general, Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup has been the catalyst for expanding the country’s digital economy and broadening its ICT ecosystem. One of Qatar’s aspirations was to use the tournament to attract investment in emerging industries and drive innovation in 5G, the internet of things (IoT), virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (some of which are already being used in the World Cup).

India is not far behind, although it missed a trick at the under-17 world cup as a potential stage to fast-track progress in building awareness on ABDM. In any case, India has all the potential and time till the 2023 Cricket World Cup (hosted in the country in October and November 2023), to move beyond standalone healthcare campaigns and highlight the digital innovations that could drive future resilient cities.

From Qatar to India, it’s just a small step to Bogota. Just a few weeks ago, I was listening to Dr Rajani Ved, from BMGF India at a very interesting session of HSR2022 on Digital innovations and new models from Asia and the Americas, “How primary care can be at the centre of post-COVID-19 health system investments”. Given that strong primary health care is a core requirement for any healthy city, a better question could have been perhaps, how technology could have been at the centre of post-pandemic healthy city initiatives.  In propelling that effort, the role of mega sporting events is undeniable in the 21st century. Though true, with some caveats.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

About Manoj Kumar Pati

Dr Manoj Kumar Pati currently works as a Knowledge Management Specialist at KHPT, Bengaluru. India. He is a former EV (EV2016 cohort) and holds a special interest in global health, NCDs and PHC. He is currently pursuing a PhD. in social sciences from the University of Antwerp, Belgium. (Twitter handle: @drmanojkpati )
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