Africa’s ability to respond to future pandemics will depend on making investments in health and education and governments must immediately intensify efforts to avoid further crisis, experts have said.
“Ebola was a signal,” John Nkengasong, head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, told participants in a virtual session on healthcare held during the African Development Bank’s (AfDB) 2021 Annual Meetings.
“We can also look at Covid-19 as an indication that something more severe will come if we do not strengthen our health defenses.”
The Annual Meetings which ended on Friday were held against the backdrop of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which has exposed the lack of access to primary healthcare for most Africans, as well as overreliance on imported medicines.
Nkengasong, along with other health and disease experts, spoke in a knowledge session titled Building Africa’s Healthcare Defense System. He urged four steps: workforce development; manufacturing capacity of diagnostics, vaccines and treatment; institution building and partnerships with the private sector. The Africa CDC has been instrumental in the continent’s fight against Covid-19.
Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organisation’s Regional Director for Africa, emphasised WHO’s partnership with the African Development Bank and regional governments.
WHO and its partners in COVAX, the worldwide initiative aimed at equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines, are also cooperating with a South African consortium including corporations, universities and the Africa CDC to set up a pioneering technology transfer hub for mRNA vaccine technology.
“This important public private partnership is an important step to building the infrastructure and human resource capacity to contribute to closing the gap in access to vaccines on the continent,” Moeti said.
“I see the African Development Bank playing a critical role on this journey alongside the African Union and the African CDC.”
AfDB president Akinwumi Adesina underscored the bank’s engagement with the issue: “We must give hope to the poor and the vulnerable, by ensuring that every African, regardless of their income level, gets access to quality health care, as well as health insurance and social protection.”
James Scriven, CEO of IDB Invest, the Inter-American Development Bank’s private sector institution, offered lessons from Latin America, which he described as the fastest growing region for generic pharmaceuticals.
He said: “Now is the right time to strengthen pharma manufacturing capability in emerging countries, and support business models that can expand the reach and supply of medicines and healthcare.”
Former World Bank president Jim Kim, a vice chairman and partner with Global Infrastructure Partners, said a holistic approach that would harness community workers and improved infrastructure would be crucial.
He called on the private sector to be a partner in building Africa’s healthcare defenses.
“You cannot end extreme poverty if you are neglecting the investments in health and education that are so critical to economic growth,” Kim said.
He urged a return to basics, adding: “It’s not one thing. It’s the health workers, it’s hospital beds, it’s making sure that you can provide oxygen, and then it’s going to be production capacity for these vaccines, and this all has to happen very quickly.”
AfDB members threw their weight for the plan to tackle Covid-19 during the meetings.
Part of the proposal is that AfDB, the continent’s only development finance institution with an AAA credit rating, act as a conduit for International Monetary Fund special drawing rights, which it would then on-lend to African countries.
Adesina proposed an African stability mechanism, modelled on a European one, to act as a firewall against external shocks.
He also pledged that the bank would strengthen support to African countries as they tackle the pandemic’s economic and health impacts.
Adesina said AfDB would invest heavily in domestic vaccine manufacturing and in Africa’s healthcare system, noting that only 51% of public health facilities have basic water and sanitation, and only 31% of healthcare facilities have electricity.
Kenneth Ofori-Atta, Ghana’s Finance Minister and Chairperson of the AfDB Board of Governors, cautioned that Africa risked being left behind as a result of the pandemic and was “staring down the possibility of a lost decade, where its economic trajectory pulls further away from that of the rest of the world.”
He said AfDB should take a leading role in the continent’s recovery.
“Our bank, distinct in its role, has to be at the center of Africa’s build-back through targeted support to tackle Africa’s development challenges and lay the foundation to respond to future challenges,” Ofori-Atta said.
To date, less than 1% of Africa’s adult population has been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, even as Africa confronts new variants and fast rising cases while the continent’s health and economic responses are hampered by tightening fiscal constraints.
For the second successive year, the bank’s 81 member countries met virtually, a poignant illustration of how the pandemic continues to disrupt daily life and work.
Ghana will host the next Annual Meetings in 2022.