Covid-19: Africa CDC's moment

As Covid-19 begins to spread on the African continent, it is the moment for the Africa Centre for Diseases Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) to lead.

The Africa CDC was established by the African Union (AU) to support the public health efforts of its member states. It started its operations in 2017, at a time when the fumes from Ebola in West Africa were still fresh.

The devastating impact of Ebola, especially on lives in rural areas, where health and other state institutional frameworks were sparse, affirmed the need to have systems in place to collect data, compare trends and help decision making.

Prevention is at the core of the Africa CDC efforts, and one of the most important tools in the public health arsenal to avoid full blown epidemics. It has played an important role in helping to contain the latest Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo – a new case emerged recently, just as the end of the outbreak was about to be declared.

Thanks to the CDC, Africa is in a different and better situation compared to the West African Ebola outbreak of 2014-2016. The Africa CDC supports the establishment and strengthening of disease surveillance and prevention in AU member states.

Since its inception, the Africa CDC has been supporting countries across Africa in building their capacity to identify emerging threats. It has a growing partnership of public, civil society and private partners whose mandate is to contribute to a safe, healthy, integrated and prosperous continent.

In addition to support to individual countries, the organisation has established five regional collaborative centres. In the current Covid-19 pandemic, the Africa CDC has helped to establish testing capacity for Covid-19 in 48 African countries.

These measures are just as important as the economic policies to reduce poverty and spur transformation. In the absence of a public health strategy to prevent epidemics, any investments for economic transformation, are likely to be eroded by preventable diseases. Epidemics are the blind spots on the highway of Africa’s progress, and that is why the continent needs to urgently invest in its health infrastructure.

Ultimately, the success of institutions like the Africa CDC will be linked to African countries’ ability to implement progressive socio-economic policies that place its most vulnerable citizens at the centre. The link between health and economic transformation has been well documented. A recent report by the Economic Commission for Africa considers that Africa’s health sector represents a $66 billion investment opportunity.

The reliance on aid in the health sector has its own limitation in where and how it is allocated. This points to the need for African countries collectively to look not only at the private sector or aid to finance health, but also crucially to the public sector, expanding state budget allocation to health, for example by broadening its tax base. This is key, if the continent is to thrive.

In order to fund a universal and comprehensive public health system, agricultural transformation and industrialisation must be a central tenet of the agenda. A prosperous economy means that companies and well-paid workers will constitute a sound tax base for government revenues. The continent can no longer separate its citizens’ health from the need to provide them with decent and fulfilling jobs.

The ongoing pandemic demonstrates that Africa’s limited presence in global value chains puts 1.3 billion people at risk of not having the required protective measures. As China, the world’s manufacturing hub, restarts its economy after the stoppages implemented to contain coronavirus, the global demand for protective wear, medical equipment will only increase and become more competitive.

African countries, most with barely a manufacturing sector to speak of, will suffer doubly: from the pandemic itself and the scarcity of resources that makes them unable to outbid wealthier countries for health equipment and medication. Thus pooling of resources through the Africa CDC might provide Africa with more bargaining power for its continental health response.

Some might argue that Africa’s structural transformation is not the issue at hand. But every year Africa imports $14 billion worth of pharmaceutical products and forfeits 16 million jobs on the continent. Decent jobs for the majority remains an important goal to pursue on the continent.

Covid-19 is not only a health emergency, but a disaster for millions of Africans in the informal sector who require constant traffic in offices, malls and markets to secure their daily bread. The lockdown measures implemented to flatten the curve, and contain the pandemic have revealed the major structural weaknesses of Africa’s economies.

The informal sector drives much of our economies, but work in the area remains precarious and uncertain. In the absence of measures to support internal demand, small micro-enterprises, many that operate in the informal sector, will bear the brunt of the preventive measures. It is estimated Africa needs $200 billion to shield itself from the impact of coronavirus, but does not have anywhere near that amount in the current dispensation.

As a relatively new organization, the Africa CDC has been active in implementing measures to fight the pandemic. It has recently established a continental health ministerial response.  It has been providing weekly Covid-19 training and update webinars in both English and French since February. Part of the continental coordinated efforts discussed are plans to send teams of health workers to support the countries more affected by Covid-19.

There are also a number of private and community led initiatives which intend to mobilise African resources from citizens and the diaspora. These will come in support of the contribution of some AU member states which committed resources to a Covid-19 response fund.

In addition to these efforts, an African Union initiative led by the President of South Africa, who is the Chair of the African Union, to mobilise international funds has been established to address the economic constraints the continent faces. It is clear that the Africa CDC would be better placed to support its member states in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, if it had more funding at hand.

The institution would also be more effective with a robust well-funded public health care system across Africa’s countries. Africans have had time to observe responses to Covid-19 in eastern, western and northern countries – and have seen how it has stretched better resourced health systems and claimed many lives.

Many are now aware that the long-term under-investment in health has left the African continent inadequately prepared for the tsunami heading its way. Unless people begin to fund the institutions designed to protect them from preventable infections, Africa as a whole will not be in a position to make progress at the pace that is required to create jobs for the youth.

In my personal view, allowing the Africa CDC to lead and succeed, and supporting it with adequate resources in the fight against Covid-19, has the potential to provide the continent a historical moment for my generation, on par with those who witnessed the elimination of malaria in the United States of America in 1951, and led to the creation of the current U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Our continent needs to dream about the possibility that its own institutions can deliver. Accelerating the creation of the Africa CDC was the right thing to do. The current pandemic is the test that we cannot fail, as domestic resources will not be enough to stem the advance of the virus. It is time each country thinks about the whole, and how domestic resources can be scaled at continental level.  

Many countries from South Africa to Senegal via Nigeria and Kenya have announced the creation of solidarity funds. While these funds will serve primarily a national agenda, the virus knows no borders. And because the average citizen with disposable income can give small amounts of money, our best bet to fund the Africa CDC, in times of economic hardship, is to pool our resources. We should all be donating to the Africa CDC.

When the dust settles, as it did after Ebola in West Africa, continental efforts will be forgotten. We had an excuse then, as there was no Africa CDC. Now, we have an institution that contributed to stopping the spread of Ebola in DRC, and coordinates the continental response to Covid-19.

It is Africa CDC’s coming of age and we cannot let the virus beat it.

Carl Manlan works at the intersection of public, private and civil society sectors for the foundation of an African financial institution. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town and Harvard Kennedy School. He is a Senior New Voices Fellow of the Aspen Institute, and a Mo Ibrahim Foundation Leadership Fellow.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

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