Africa, as the region with the greatest number of least developed countries and consequently the weakest public health systems, was expected to struggle in responding to COVID-19. In fact, the AU has been reasonably proactive, undoubtedly because of its established institutional commitment to regional public health in the form of the Africa Centre for Disease Control. The African CDC, as an AU body, has worked to develop a response through the Partnership to Accelerate COVID-19 Testing (PACT) to trace, test, and track the pandemic as it spreads across the continent.
In particular, in measures formulated by the African Ministers of Health on 22 February and endorsed by the AU Heads of State on 6 March, the African CDC committed PACT to “strengthen capacity to test for COVID-19 across Africa, with emphasis on countries that have only minimal capacity. This will ensure that at least 10 million Africans, who would have not been tested, get tested in the next six months.”
PACT focuses on warehousing and establishing distribution hubs across Africa in conjunction with the World Food Programme and Ethiopian airlines (already used to distribute emergency food and humanitarian assistance) says it has distributed one million test kits throughout the continent. Notably, the African CDC is assisting in managing: the procurement of medical supplies and donations; supporting testing and deployment of healthcare workers; standardising and deploying common technology platforms for gathering and assessing data on the disease.
Given the weaknesses in public health systems in many African countries and the dizzying financial shortfalls experienced by governments, the AU has had to appeal for international help to fight the pandemic.
Still, given the weaknesses in public health systems in many African countries and the dizzying financial shortfalls experienced by governments, the AU has had to appeal for international help to fight the pandemic. The AU’s chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamt, called on the international community to go beyond “good intentions” and give massive support to Africa, estimating that between “$100 and 150 billion” would be necessary not only to fight the pandemic but to offset the economic consequences produced by it.
Mahamat declared emphatically: “The African continent needs rapid support in terms of liquidity, for us to be able to first and foremost deal with this crisis from a health point of view, and then to deal with...all of the humanitarian needs that we will have in the near future. There are a lot of refugees, a lot of displaced persons throughout our continent, so states need considerable support and they need that now.”
Traditionally the US had excelled in its support for public health programming through PEPFAR and private initiatives sponsored by the Gates Foundation. China is currently involved in combatting COVID-19 in Africa through expanded technical assistance, financial support and donations in kind through the Ja Ma Foundation. And, the G20 countries are in discussions about the possibilities of rescheduling debt and extending a multi-billion dollar package to avert the worst of the economic impacts of the disease.
Although there is some encouraging news coming out of the continent, including the small number of deaths attributable to COVID-19 in South Africa and the demonstrated success of local community health workers in Rwanda, WHO estimates a further 10 million cases can be expected in coming months. Coupled to the disruption of economic activity, that leaves Africa at considerable risk and the region will likely need further support from the international community.
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