Stronger Healthcare Systems Critical for Africa’s Socioeconomic Transformation

By Claude Mambo Muvunyi

Prof. Claude Mambo Muvunyi is Director General of Rwanda Biomedical Centre

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare systems globally have battled to deal with the repercussions unleashed by the disease. From the outset, Africa was considered particularly vulnerable due to several factors: limited healthcare provision in some areas, high prevalence of HIV and TB in a number of countries, and limited fiscal room to respond to the pandemic’s financial impacts.

Yet governments across the continent still managed to come together to respond to the pandemic with unprecedented speed. This was possible due to previous experience handling outbreaks such as Ebola, yellow fever and cholera, with systems put in place to deal with outbreaks. In many respects, Africa responded well.

However, what began as a health crisis soon progressed into an economic crisis too. The pandemic tipped Africa into its first recession in 25 years. It increased extreme poverty on the continent for the first time in decades. Although African economies are slowly rebounding, the recovery is constrained by low vaccination rates, budget constraints, unequal access to external finance, and increasing debt vulnerabilities.

The need for increased investment in healthcare has never been clearer. Prioritizing domestic health is one of the best investments African countries can make in themselves to secure the vision for a prosperous and peaceful continent.

To achieve this, Africa must meet its health commitments as outlined in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. A critical focus is the elimination of malaria and neglected tropical diseases.

On June 23, Rwanda will host the Kigali Summit on Malaria and NTDs hosted by President Paul Kagame and co-convened by The RBM Partnership to End Malaria and Uniting to Combat NTDs.

The Summit is a signal moment to renew high-level commitments to end malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) and unlock the potential for countries to build a healthier, safer world. Malaria and NTDs, a group of 20 communicable diseases most commonly affecting the most vulnerable people in the world, continue to thrive in areas of poverty, afflicting the lives and livelihoods of billions of people, a large majority in Africa. These diseases are preventable and treatable.

This year, Rwanda was WHO Certified for having eliminated Human African Trypanosomiasis (HAT), commonly referred to as sleeping sickness. To date, 45 countries have eliminated at least one NTD and 600 million people no longer require treatment for the group of diseases. Two decades of investments in combatting malaria have saved 10.6 million lives and prevented 1.7 billion cases, significantly reducing burdens on health systems worldwide.

In the last five years, Rwanda made progress in malaria response with a drop in malaria cases from 4.8 Million cases in 2017 to 1.1 Million in 2021, from eighteen thousands severe malaria in 2016 to two thousands in 2021 and from 700 deaths due to malaria to 69 in the same period.

As Africa rebuilds following the pandemic, investment in the fight against malaria and NTDs will make healthcare systems more resilient and support longer-term pandemic preparedness. Ending malaria and NTDs must be a central component of our response to COVID-19. The right combination of investment and innovation will in turn increase our capacity to prevent, detect and respond to future pandemics.

To achieve this, political will and leadership is needed. We know what we need to do. But we must unlock the potential for a malaria and NTD free world and improve the lives of millions. I have seen the central role that leadership plays. Rwanda is internationally recognized for its success in offering universal access to healthcare, thanks to political focus.

The Kigali Summit is a pivotal moment. With endemic countries at the forefront, civil society, the private sector and non-profit organisations must work together to ensure progress against these preventable diseases, especially as we learn from our response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Governments must coordinate efforts from all stakeholders and partners, channelling them into one universal goal: building better healthcare systems across the continent.

What’s more, donor countries must meet their commitments in the fight against the disease burden. Prioritizing and mobilizing commitments including a fully resourced Global Fund this year is essential if we are to defeat HIV, TB and malaria, and ensure a healthier, safer and more equitable future for all.

As African countries continue to work to protect their populations against COVID-19, now must be the moment to prioritise investment in the elimination of malaria and NTDs, and to leverage that investment to protect against future threats and build stronger healthcare systems and healthier African populations.

Put simply, the future of Africa depends on its people. A healthy population can unlock stronger economic growth and deliver a better future for all.

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