August 30, 2021

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

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

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.