African Health Ministers’ Path Ahead — A Slow but Steady Fight Against COVID-19

By Nahashon Aluoka, Regional Advisor, East & Southern Africa, Pandemic Action 

Amidst Africa’s persistent third wave of COVID-19, the 71st session of the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Committee for Africa gathered Ministers of Health and leaders from across the continent. The message coming from WHO’s decision-making body was clear: solidarity is required to address COVID-19 in a region that has also been under the stranglehold of more than 50 different public health emergencies in the WHO reporting period.   

In a special session on COVID-19 response, a status report on vaccine rollout and uptake was presented, and Ministers exchanged ideas on approaches to tackle the pandemic and the post-COVID-19 recovery. Vaccines and rollout were top-of-mind. There is slow but steady progress in acquisition and deployment of vaccines. So far, more than 129 million doses have been received in the continent through multiple platforms and more than 93 million doses have been administered. 

However, the response to this crisis is beleaguered with various challenges and leaders clearly laid them on the table. These include: 

  • The magnitude of the crisis requires multi-sectoral coordination at the country level. Ministers noted that the involvement of the private sector, civil society and communities could be improved. 
  • Fragile health systems are stretched and lack adequate funding to properly respond to COVID-19 let alone other health challenges.
  • In many countries, there are also challenges of non-compliance to public health measures, i.e., mask-wearing, physical distancing, and handwashing, and low levels of vaccine confidence continues to be fueled by virulent misinformation. 
  • Weak planning and inadequate resourcing for vaccine deployment. Two countries have yet to begin vaccine rollout and inconsistent supply has resulted in uneven rollouts across the continent.


Priorities Ahead
Calls for a comprehensive and costed global action plan to vaccinate the world continue, but they have yet to be heeded. 

African leaders must continue to work in solidarity starting with a focus on planning for and effectively managing vaccine delivery. So much attention is paid to vaccine procurement but similar attention must be put on ensuring that countries and communities are ready for vaccine delivery.  

Now that the vaccine pipeline from multiple sources — including COVAX and the path-breaking efforts of the Africa Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT) has increased vaccine volumes into the continent, all efforts should be made to ensure vaccines are equitably deployed and that there is zero wastage. 

With the limited availability of vaccines and the fact that vaccines don’t work alone in containing the pandemic, member states need to increase investment in creating awareness and promoting compliance to public health measures that stop the spread of COVID-19. Such campaigns must address the contextual aspects of their populations and be voiced by trusted sources on trusted channels.

Importantly, African member states must work together through the African Union to transform the current political will to develop local manufacturing capacities for vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics on the continent into a solid action plan. This pandemic has made it clear that the continent’s health security cannot, and should never, be anchored on global solidarity and goodwill and that Africa must define a new public health order driven by its regional and national institutions

 

An Opportunity for a Leap Forward: Reflections from the 34th African Union Summit

By Nahashon Aluoka

This year’s African Union (AU) Heads of State Summit (February 6-7, 2021) went virtual because of the COVID-19 pandemic. For some, it was refreshing to see this important meeting happen devoid of all the pomp and color that has characterized it in the past. As anticipated, the COVID-19 pandemic, the African Union Commission (AUC) elections, and AU reforms dominated the Summit. Looking at the journey of the AU, the progressive reforms, and the continental leadership and solidarity it has cultivated—albeit with some pockets of contention in responding to different crises ranging from wars and conflicts to pandemics like COVID-19—it is time for the Union to take a leap forward.

Leadership Reassurance
While some changes in the midst of a pandemic can be scarring, the decision by the new AU Chairperson, President Felix Tshisekedi of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to appoint his immediate predecessor, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa as the champion for the COVID-19 vaccine strategy and acquisition by AU member states is reassuring. The latter has been deeply involved and spearheaded efforts at the global level to ensure that the continent accesses the required tools for COVID-19 response, including diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines. It is also calming to an extent that the incumbent AU Commission Chairperson, former prime minister of Chad Moussa Faki Mahammat, who was unopposed for re-election, successfully retained his chair seat for a second and final four-year term. In a recent International Crisis Group report, Faki is highlighted for his firm focus on conflict prevention and resolution, strengthening the AU’s relations with multilateral partners, especially the UN and European Union, and his proactive leadership in coordinating Africa’s response to the pandemic.

Opportunity for a Strategic Leap Forward
Although President Felix Tshiekedi’s assumption of responsibility as the AU chair is due to the rotational nature of the role, he has an opportunity to demonstrate leadership at the national level with regard to COVID-19 response, and to help steer the continent to make a strategic leap forward in preparedness for future responses based on the stark and unpleasant lessons the continent has continued to observe with this pandemic. These include the ban on export of COVID-related tools mostly by the developed countries just after the declaration of COVID-19 as a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) by the World Health Organization (WHO). This action disrupted the global supply chains for life-saving tools, including diagnostics and therapeutics. Vaccine nationalism has also seen African countries being last on the queue in accessing vaccine doses despite the gallant efforts by Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (ACDC), and other actors to acquire vaccine doses beyond the COVAX facility.

It is commendable that President Tshiekedi acknowledges the importance of enhancing investment in research and development (R&D) for the continent to be able to better deal with its challenges in responding to the current pandemic and future pandemics. He has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead at the national level to significantly invest in R&D and significantly shore up investment in COVID-19 response. Given DRC’s experiences with Ebola and the expertise at various levels in responding to outbreaks, leadership demands that President Tshiekedi ramp up testing for COVID-19 and lead preparation for vaccine roll-out. At the continental level, he has an opportunity to rally our leaders and specialized institutions to implement important continental strategies that would enhance the continent’s preparedness for future pandemics. These include the Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Plan for Africa (PMPA), the Health Research and Innovation Strategy for Africa (HRISA), and the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA). These critical health frameworks are only useful if implemented.

Further, given the common understanding that political instability, wars, and conflict on the continent complicate response to pandemics—as was the case with Ebola in the DRC—it is important that the AU continues its razor-sharp focus on responding to, mitigating, and preventing conflicts even as it coordinates efforts to contain COVID-19. Wars and conflict-related disruptions will continue to jeopardize efforts to contain COVID-19 and ensure the health of citizens across the continent.

Read the official press release from the AU Heads of State Summit here.

It’s Time for Africa Mask Week

By Nahashon Alouka, Regional Advisor for East and South Africa, Pandemic Action Network

As the world continues to be ravaged by the novel coronavirus, Africa has not been spared. With current cases exceeding 1.8 million and 43,000 deaths, Africa may have not yet suffered the exponential spread of infection as initially feared by many, but we are not out of the woods. If the recent alarming rises in cases in other parts of the world are any indicator for future risk and as more countries on the continent begin to report high daily infection rates, now is the time to be vigilant to protect our communities.

That’s why the Pandemic Action Network, together with Africa CDC, the Office of the AU Youth Envoy, Resolve to Save Lives, and 55+ partner organizations are launching Africa Mask Week from November 23-30 to accelerate and sustain mask-wearing to help stop the spread of COVID-19 on the continent. Africa Mask Week will rally a social media movement of leaders and people to share and show that when we wear a mask, we are protecting our friends, our families, and our communities. 

Africa Mask Week aims to engage people across the continent with the support of the Risk Communication and Community Engagement Working Group and many other national partners. The campaign seeks to further awareness and understanding of the risks associated with COVID-19, influence increased adoption of mask-wearing as the new normal, encourage effective formulation and enforcement of policies on mandatory use of masks in public places, and influence policymakers to model proper masking behavior.

Until there are vaccines or medicines to fight COVID-19, wearing a mask is one of the best tools we have, especially when combined with physical distancing and hand washing. Overall, mask use in Africa is declining, but the COVID-19 pandemic is not over. We need leaders and the public to keep practicing what works to stop the spread. “COVID-19 is a respiratory disease caused by the transfer of droplets. As the pandemic continues to gain momentum in Africa, we must increase compliance to the public health and social measures so we can protect ourselves and protect our economy. We must increase mass wearing of masks as we expand testing and treatment services,” said Dr. John Nkengasong, Director of Africa CDC.

Today, more than 40 African countries have enacted policies on mandatory use of masks in public. The implementation has, however, been inconsistent and, in some cases, marred by human rights violations. Furthermore, there are documented rumors, untruths, and stigmatization of those who wear masks.

Africa Mask Week is an opportunity to turn the tide on inconsistent masking and misperceptions. Recent COVID-19 KAP survey data reveals that there is a high awareness and value for masking in Africa with 84 percent of respondents saying that wearing a face mask in public when near others is “absolutely necessary”. But we know that we are not practicing masking consistently and COVID-19 is not going away any time soon. It is important that we accelerate and sustain mask-wearing on the continent to reduce the spread of infections in our communities. There is increasing evidence in support of masking:

  • Face coverings block the spray of droplets from sneezing, coughing, talking, singing or shouting when worn over the mouth and nose. They serve as barriers that help prevent droplets from traveling into the air.1,2,3
  • Since people may have COVID-19, but not know it or have symptoms, consistent mask-wearing can reduce the spread of the virus.4,5 
  • A study published in The Lancet examined data from 172 studies from 16 countries and six continents and found that face mask use could result in a large reduction in the risk of infection.6

 

Join us for Africa Mask Week – November 23-30 – by engaging your networks including policymakers, traditional and religious leaders, celebrities and other influencers, friends, and community members. Lead by example and #WearAMask to protect your community. Together we can stop the spread of COVID-19.

Contact: Autumn Lerner, Director of Communications, Pandemic Action Network at [email protected]