Experts are calling for increased investment in healthcare infrastructure in Africa to support data collection, research and development related to the COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent impact on African economies.
In a recent discussion on VOAs Let’s talk straight about Africa program titled COVID-19 in Africa: viruses, variants and vaccinesexperts pointed out that the global health crisis has exposed the poor health infrastructure on the continent.
Mo Ibrahim, the billionaire founder and chairman of the London foundation that bears his name, spoke about the inequalities in the distribution of vaccines at the height of the pandemic.
“Vaccine apartheid did not improve Africa’s situation,” Ibrahim said. However, he said he remained “pretty optimistic that the pandemic, in some weird way, will help us move forward”.
“In the future, we have to make our own vaccines,” he said. “We should not rely on the goodwill or sensible behavior of others.”
Last Friday, the World Health Organization announced that six African countries would be the first on the continent to receive the technology needed to produce mRNA vaccines. These countries are Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia.
Health experts around the world have raised concerns about the uneven distribution of vaccines. More than 80% of the population of the African continent has not yet received a single dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the WHO.
“Much of this inequity is due to the fact that globally, vaccine production is concentrated in a few, mostly high-income countries,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom. Ghebreyesus, during a European Union-African Union summit last week.
During the panel, Ibrahim highlighted Africa’s weak and overburdened health care system while highlighting the lack of adequate investment and the effects of brain drain on health care.
Amid the COVID-19 crisis, wealthier countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development have attracted migrant doctors and nurses with measures such as higher salaries, temporary licenses and easier entry , the The OECD reported.
The WHO recommends at least one doctor for every thousand people. Some African countries, such as Ghana and Chad, had as few as 0.1 doctors per thousand in 2019, according to World Bank data.
Panelist Aloysius Uche Ordu dispelled the assumption that infectious diseases always come from poor countries.
“We tend to think of Africa as the place where infectious diseases start. Well, that didn’t happen with COVID,” said Ordu, who leads the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. “COVID started with one wealthy country and spread to other wealthy countries. Africa actually came into the picture later.”
An official from the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the continent had done a commendable job in tackling the virus.
“We have kept the numbers low. We have mobilized our political leadership from the highest level down to our technical teams,” said Dr. Ahmed Ogwell Ouma, Africa CDC Deputy Director. “We’ve mobilized the public, and Africa has largely come through this pandemic as a group. And that’s unprecedented, and I’m going to give us a very, very high rating.”
But the dean of health sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa disagrees.
Professor Sabir Madhi noted that the disproportionately high number of COVID-19 deaths in his country is largely due to “much more robust” contact tracing and data collection tools than other African countries.
South Africans “constitute less than 5% of Africa’s population but have contributed to 45% of all (COVID-19 related) deaths on the African continent”, he said.
The country of nearly 60 million people has the highest number of infections and deaths recorded in Africa – a total of 3.6 million cases and nearly 99,000 deaths this week, according to the Resource Center on the coronavirus from Johns Hopkins University. The center has recorded more than 420 million cases of COVID-19 worldwide and nearly 6 million deaths.
South Africa is emerging from a fourth wave of the pandemic, largely driven by the omicron variant. According to local scientists, the variant no longer leads to high hospitalization and death rates in the country, a huge relief for a population reeling from lockdown fatigue.
Madhi told VOA that the continent had not learned from the 2009 swine flu experiences, which highlighted the need for good data collection.
He added that “the impact of the pandemic on Africa will unfortunately only be felt after the pandemic is over.”
The United States is committed to helping the world fight the virus. President Joe Biden has pledged to donate more than 1.2 billion doses through COVAX, the international vaccine sharing initiative backed by the UN and health organizations Gavi and CEPI. The initiative aims to ensure the equitable distribution of vaccines in developing countries.
So far, the United States has donated more than 450 million doses worldwide, of which more than 120 million have been distributed to 43 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the State Department.
Ordu said it has become imperative to strengthen STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in Africa. This, he argued, would be a surefire way to weather any future health crisis.
“Due to the growing youth population in Africa, it is important that STEM education is an area of focus, especially for women and girls,” he said.
This report comes from VOA’s English to Africa service.