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13 April 2021
Global Health Initiative: Investing in African Health Care in The Wake of COVID-19
By Laura Rodriguez, UNA-NCA Communications and Membership Program Assistant

On March 25, 2021, the UNA-NCA African Affairs Committee hosted a virtual panel discussion that covered topics including the importance of economic investment and unique collaborations within African health care. Using the framework of United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 3: to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all, the evening’s panelists came together to discuss the challenges that have been exacerbated as a result of COVID-19 across the continent of Africa and presented hope and opportunities in the form of solutions. 

UNA-NCA African Affairs Committee Chair, Lydia Daniels, kicked off the event by expressing the goal of the committee to “engage NGOs in capacity-building efforts in several African countries impacted by the global pandemic.” She connected this back to the goal of the presenters and discussion of the night — to highlight the tools and resources that NGOs and partners can use to initiate solution-building in the region. 

Carolyn Nganga-Good, the Branch Chief at the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), introduced the first of the five panelists for the night, Dr. Yolanda Ogbolu, the Chair of the Partnerships, Professional Education and Practice Department and Associate Professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore, School of Nursing (UMSON) and School of Medicine. 

Dr. Ogbolu outlined the gaps in technology between low human development countries in Africa compared to high human development countries like the U.S., and proposed the challenge of looking at development through a global lens with the backdrop of the COVID-19 crisis. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) Director General, “The developing world carries 90% of the disease burden, yet poorer countries have access to only 10% of the resources that go to health.” Given this, Dr. Ogbolu stressed that, “health is wealth,” since lower-income communities will experience poorer health across the board. Dr. Ogbolu noted that “people and countries are really cracking because they’re focusing under the assumption that money is the most important thing, but power is the real protagonist of the story: power of the few, powerlessness of many, collective power of those fighting for change.” Ending on an optimistic note, Dr. Ogbolu pondered the topic of African progress in the midst of COVID-19, stating that while some countries were not able to give large protections, “some gave cash or free electricity, or advance their digital services much faster than what was anticipated.” She also noted the important establishment of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which will potentially allow the region to become more self-reliant and fulfill services such as the distribution of surgical masks and medications. 

Following Dr. Ogbolu, Eric Friedman, J.D., the Global Health Justice Scholar at the Georgetown University O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health and Project Leader for the Platform for a Framework Convention on Global Health (FCGH), spoke on the importance of rights-based governance for global health in the post-pandemic world. Mr. Friedman touched on the possibilities that could arise in forms of solutions to the challenges exacerbated by COVID-19, such as: the establishment of universal healthcare to improve surveillance and detection of infectious diseases; enhanced accountability and participation, which would combat community mistrust of current health systems and authorities in the sector as well as give a voice and equity-based solutions to marginalized populations in the region; the right to health in all sectors; and lastly, avoiding action with “extraterritorial effects that undermine the right to health such as the hoarding of resources like vaccines and medicine.” Mr. Friedman also spoke about the Framework Convention on Global Health (FCGH), a proposed global treaty with a mission of ensuring global and domestic health equity and accountability.

The conversation took a more in-depth look at economic growth with Dr. Hezekiah Adesanya, the former Philadelphia Area Chapter Chairman and Board Member of the Association of Nigerian Physicians in America (ANPA), who honed in on the pharmaceutical industry in Africa as a “strategic regional growth driver.” Dr. Adesanya highlighted the connection between the industry’s ability to meet community medical needs across the region, reduce disease burden, all of which “directly impact GDP, and increase the prosperity and economic well-being of a nation or demographic of people.” He proposed a several-point strategy to accomplish this growth, including innovation and research to discover new entities or improve upon existing ones, as well as improve commercialization and develop a strategy to maintain a good market share both locally and globally. Dr. Adesanya signaled the potential of already growing pharmaceutical markets in places such as Nigeria and other nations within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWA), stating that when properly harnessed, “these existing growth opportunities will spur economic growth in all areas.” He also focused on the importance of members of the African diaspora community in combating misinformation regarding the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and access and other information gaps in the region regarding the healthcare sector. 

Dr. Val Okaru-Bisant, the CEO & Founder of Afrocosmo Development Impact, LLC, spoke about the crucial role of female-owned Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in Africa, and the resilience under pressure that they have demonstrated amid the COVID-19 crisis. Dr. Okaru-Bisant depicted SMEs as the backbone of Africa’s economy, with 80% of the workforce in most African countries working in this sector, and more than 50% of which are women. She also stated that most of the women and individuals within the SME sector make up the informal sector as well, which connects to the “six survival challenges” that AfCFTA member nations face: the formalization of the informal sector, and lack of incentives to do so — such as affordable licensing, registration, and infrastructure costs; technical skills development; the challenge of scaling up, particularly for female and youth-owned SMEs; both financial and non-financial capital; and lastly, education on business and trade policy at the grassroots level. Dr. Okaru-Bisant ended by noting that “optimistically, female-owned SMEs in Africa are very resilient,” regardless of the survival challenges they face. 

The last speaker of the night, Dr. Njide Okonjo-Udochi, President of the Millennium Health Group, PC, explored topics including the role of donor agencies, the state of healthcare on the African continent, and vaccine rollout initiatives across the region. Dr. Udochi pointed out that 3.4% of the COVID-19 infection worldwide came out of the African continent, with an approximate 2.4% case fatality rate. She stated the importance of bilateral and multilateral donor aid from NGOs, local governments, as well as philanthropic and private sector collaboration in the forms of programs, grants, tenders, contracts, open funding opportunities, and other innovative aid initiatives. Dr. Udochi also noted the lessons learned from the Ebola epidemic, through the implementation of early lockdowns and strict government-backed public health initiatives — despite the many challenges that the health care sector faced such as a lack of trained medical personnel, equipment, or testing supplies. She ended her portion of the discussion on the progress of COVID-19 vaccine accessibility or lack thereof, stating that through the Covax initiative, 600 million doses, or 20% of the population has been vaccinated. She stated “government agencies have to focus in order to help many countries improve their logistics as well as storage for the vaccines, not only for now but also for the future.” 

After addressing the need for implementing strategies to support sustainable and efficient health systems, along with the important synergy of African government support, investors, and donor agencies in meeting community needs, the panelists then transitioned into a Q&A session, during which they addressed the value of the African diaspora community abroad in implementing change on the African continent by leveraging their expertise and accessibility to technology. 

Above all, the role of technology and the mentality that “health is wealth,” are crucial in building an effective, collaborative and long-lasting response to the issues exacerbated by the COVID-19 Pandemic. As Dr. Ogbolu stated, “I am because we are,” stressing that if the COVID-19 crisis is addressed and tackled in Africa, it will impact the whole world. By addressing the power dynamics that dictate the severity of the issues that marginalized populations face across the continent — not just the power of international bodies and organizations such as the UN and the WHO, but also the shifting of power to the people who need it the most. Queshia Bradley, the Program Development Manager for Strategic Initiatives & Innovation, closed the event by stating that the “unique landscape we find ourselves in for collaboration and public and private partnerships” provides an opportunity to keep questioning and finding innovative solutions to current-day issues, as well as engaging in capacity-building efforts to strengthen potential in the region — whether it be within the pharmaceutical industry and education sector, or scaling community commerce.