Reflections on the AL for Health Gathering 21

Joseph Usungu, a member of the AL for Health network shares his unique reflections on this year’s Gathering and what it means for the African continent.

On August 13th, 2021 members of the AL for Health network convened virtually to attend the 2nd Biannual Conference – AL for Health Gathering – with the aim of reflecting, exchanging, and acting in pursuit of the future of Africa’s health sector as the continent battles the pandemic. 

With more than 150 attendees, a clear-focused dissection of the Gathering’s theme, “Global Health Equity – Building Solutions for Crises we cannot Ignore.” was performed. Commenced by a duo keynote speech from the co-founders of Healthy Learners, Angel Chelwa and Lonnie Hackett and followed by a speech from the Director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. John Nkengasong, it was evident through their speeches that the current tools and methodologies used by Africa in tackling the pandemic hold so much value in determining the continent’s future. 

Dr. John Nkengasong went on further to outline four key insights from how Africa is handling the pandemic and the continent’s future in containing such type of health crisis. The key insights include:

Covid 19 is a generational crisis and multidimensional because it affects all sectors of our lives. 

He directly addresses towards the new normal Africa is adopting and how the continent should lay foundation for its coming generations. He states, “This is a crisis for now but it’s a crisis for the future” describing how life will not be the same post the pandemic and for the future generations. He further connects his argument with the HIV pandemic and how it erupted 40 years ago and still exists today. But he strongly urges that the continent should not consider the crisis as “dooms day” as it has enlightened Africa’s nations about the threats they should prepare, for pandemics that holds “multidimensional impacts” for the continents health, economy and security sector as seen by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Although the crisis is unprecedented it was predictable. 

In this point, he details on why Covid-19 pandemic is unprecedented. He refers to the last time the world faced a dangerous viral outbreak, in 1980’s approximately 100 years ago. He notes the “elementary” understanding of such virus in that particulate time, forced virologist to tackle the virus without fully knowing what it was. With how that pandemic was handled together with such a gap in years of which human life has advanced, it qualifies the Covid-19 pandemic as an unprecedented one. But he also notes the human life advancements like the rapid technology advancement in gene sequencing and factors like climate change, rapid population growth, and global transportation have made the effects of the pandemic widely predictable. 

Does Africa need a new public health order to prepare for the future? 

He believes for Africa to move towards a sustainable health future that guarantees the continent’s health security, a new public health order should be designed and implemented. The order should be one that “philosophically speaks to the fact it places us on the driver’s seat so that we take ownership of our health security and not mortgage it to externalities.” To achieve this new public health order, he advises that manufacturing of health security commodities – mostly diagnostics, vaccines, and therapeutics – should happen on the African continent to give an opportunity for African youth to further invent solution that fully fit and mesh the continent’s health needs. He further advices that the government should be more open to partner and work with the private sector. He argues the “most and greatest innovation in this pandemic has come from private sector,” he notes leaders in the private sector like Strive Masiyiwa, Benedict Oramah and Vera Songwe, who he has worked with and together produced very innovative public health solutions. He further adds that his work with the private sector has helped him redefine his engagement with public health challenges from tackling in a scientific domain only but to be more of a collaborative work with personnel outside the public health sector domain. 

Important role of leadership that has enable the continent to be successful as it is now. 

He notes that a strong leadership structure is important to control and prevent future health crisis in Africa. He further notes that not just any strong leadership structure but one with personnel that practice “leadership in action.” He notices President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa as “Covid Champion,” who on his time as the Chairman of African Union convened the Africa CDC, and Twelve Head and Bureau states 15 times to discuss and actionize the strategies for containing Covid-19 pandemic in Africa. He advises that, the outlined type of leadership will help Africa weather through tough challenging times that threatens its health security in the future. 

The Gathering’s theme was further broken down into three topics covering Africa’s major heath sector challenges in the pandemic, Vaccine Equity (An attainable goal or myth?), Disease Equity (Maintaining a long-term perspective in the midst of reactionary pandemic measure) and Equitable Access To Quality Healthcare (Can grassroots movements and community-based organizations accelerate a bottom-up approach?)These topics were spurred and led by key players in Africa’s health sector that are making massive-impactful contribution towards an equitable and sustainable future of the continent’s health sector. The sessions were curated under a unique dialogue style that gave the audience an opportunity to virtually engage with the speakers in the most challenging but constructive conversations that drew up powerful insights and sustainable solutions for each topic. 

Unlike the last conference, the 2021 AL for Health Gathering provided an opportunity for network members to create small prototypes addressing Africa’s health challenges under the theme Scaling Global Health Equity with winners receiving $2500 each to fund their prototypes. Among 6 finalists, two prototypes where selected. First prototype strived to prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS to little infants from their mothers during breastfeeding by encouraging the use of safe breastfeeding practices through a learning package for breastmilk expression. Followed by a prototype to reduce death rates from preventable diseases by offering health services alongside salon services, to encourage the embodiment of preventative healthcare as habitually as beauty. 

Looking forward, the AL for Health Network envisions the Gatherings as an opportunity for more people interested in the Healthcare sector in the continent to meet, connect and build long lasting relationships with employer partners, key heath stakeholders and with leaders from the continent as it did under its networking section during the 2021 Gathering. 

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