Judging by the world’s history of pandemics and outbreaks, anyone would think that COVID-19 would be a short-lived occurrence, but it turned out that humanity was less than prepared as the virus continues to rip through countries and continents with such rapidity and ambiguity, overwhelming the entire global health system end-to-end.
Not only that, due to the extreme containment measures being enforced by governments, the global economy has taken a real hit giving new meaning to the maxim ‘health is wealth’; a view many business leaders had expounded in their efforts to build up health care systems especially in Africa where, as at 2019, there was a USD60+ financing gap.
The Flu Pandemic (1889-1890); the Spanish Flu (1918-1920); the Asian Flu (1957-1958); the H1N1 Swine Flu (2009-2010 are all pandemics that came and went but within the short periods of their existence, they took significant toll on humanity but with one direct and positive outcome – people worked to bolster their health care systems.
The lessons of any pandemic appear simple – hope for the best but prepare for the worst. Africa has been in a ‘hoping’ mode for far too long now and not doing the glaring needful in terms of preparation; a classic example being the 2001 meeting of the African Union countries where governments pledged a minimum 15% of their annual budgets to improve the continent’s health sector. Almost two decades later, only three countries are meeting this commitment, a commitment even the 2014 Ebola outbreak did not do much to spur.
The truth is that governments in Africa approach health without one critical understanding – ‘a healthy population guarantees prosperity’. This understanding is becoming more and more understood in the continent’s private sector where organisations increasingly invest in the healthcare of their workforce – the same private sector which today is providing much needed support to fight the pandemic.
On a reasonable note, it is a global norm for governments to collaborate with private sector to ensure that citizens enjoy an appreciative quality of life but this collaboration needs cohesion, transparency and controls to be impactful not to mention proper prioritization of issues. In Africa however, health has never been a priority.
COVID-19 must become the game changer.
Africa cannot afford to put its health industry in the backseat any longer and this is highlighted by the economic projections put forward by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa in its report. Key stakeholders across the continent must reconvene and revisit legitimate issues that are prerequisite for a thriving health industry. Governments must undergo a change in mindset that will open the door for increased private sector engagement and investment founded on appropriate policy frameworks and incentives. Most importantly, trust must be built between the public and private sectors as well as between the government and citizens.
Africans have large hearts – the massive donations to ramp up the continent’s response to COVID-19 is a clear indicator that many people recognize the deficiencies in its health infrastructure and, where the situation calls for it, are prepared to provide some level of intervention.
However, one should question how well this strategy bodes for Africa – will all the monetary donations that have come in to support the fight against COVID-19 be restricted to that purpose? What will become of the healthcare centers built and equipped for the purpose – will these be re-tasked? How will the actions to improve the health sector be managed and by which body or bodies? What will become of the various coalitions that have been birthed in the fight against COVID-19? Will there be any sort of accounting provided as to how funding was expended?
It is our firm belief that this pandemic provides a unique opportunity for Africa to reset the conditions of its health care sector; however, three essentials must be provided for – political will, motivation for business and populace education.
The continent’s health care challenges may be huge but the list of potential solutions is almost endless. Adopting a ‘business as usual’ attitude after this pandemic would not only be wrong, it would be criminal negligence. Every stakeholder must work together to improve Africa’s health outcomes to not only guaranty its prosperity but also its survival.