BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of the Congo – Health ministers and representatives from African countries gathered this week for the annual World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Committee for Africa voiced concern over the impact of COVID-19 and stressed that the pandemic was a poignant reminder for countries to bolster health systems.
The Seventieth session of the WHO Regional Committee for Africa – the Organization’s decision-making body – which was held virtually for the first time due to COVID-19 also celebrated Africa’s historic milestone in eradicating wild poliovirus. More than 500 participants, including Ministers of Health and officials from 47 Member States as well as representatives from United Nations agencies, intergovernmental organizations, civil society, academia and development partners attended the meeting.
Since Africa confirmed its first COVID-19 cases in February the continent has recorded more than 1.1 million cases. African governments have reinforced response measures, building on the early steps such as enhanced surveillance, detection and movement restrictions taken even before the virus hit the continent.
“This virus has not only affected our health, but also tested our way of living, societal norms and economies at large. In Africa we quickly felt the impact of the pandemic due to our weak health systems coupled with the highest disease burden in the world,” Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed Ali said.
To minimize the impact of the pandemic, prime minister Abiy called for improved COVID-19 response coordination, a common voice to ensure fair and equitable access to vaccines, diagnostics and treatment, and stronger health systems and public health emergency preparedness and response.
“COVID-19 has taught as that strong health systems are a matter of national security and survival,” he said.
Mauritian prime minister Pravind Kumar Jugnauth pointed out that timely and decisive response were critical to his country’s success in bringing down COVID-19 infections in five weeks after the first case was confirmed.
“It is crucial to have an efficient health system at a time when we are experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic,” said prime minister Jugnauth. “The government continues to invest significantly in the health sector for both present and future generations.”
A WHO progress assessment on the performance of health systems as part of efforts to attain universal health coverage found that Member States in the region have gaps in different capacities, with the most acute seen in poor physical and financial access to services, and low resilience of health systems. The COVID-19 outbreak has underscored the high-risk countries face if their populations are unable to access available services, and if the systems are not resilient enough to absorb stress and sustain service provision during a shock event.
“The coronavirus pandemic has proven once again the importance of investing in health systems, enhancing equitable access to care and improving readiness to prevent and control outbreaks,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa. “Recovering from this pandemic will be incomplete without strong measures to bolster health systems. We must seize the opportunity and make the leap for a better tomorrow.”
The WHO assessment recommends that Members States find ways to increase public funding to develop health systems, explore initiative to boost access to services, review and identify the needed health system investments, set up measures to monitor the performance of health systems at the subnational level and enhance the efficiency of available funding, particularly donor, private and out-of-pocket funds.
Dr Moeti also presented a report on the work of WHO in the African Region covering areas such as universal health coverage, accelerating gains in preventing and controlling diseases, protecting people from health emergencies, promoting health and wellbeing.
“It is not only about what we do, but how we do it, that is important. We remain focused on delivering in ways that are more effective, results-driven and accountable,” said Dr Moeti.
The Regional Committee is the highest decision-making body on health in the region, involving ministers of health from the Member States of the WHO African Region. It meets once a year to review critical health issues affecting the continent and to advise on appropriate strategies to improve health outcomes.