Why Africa cannot go back to 'business as usual'

16Apr 2020
The Guardian
Why Africa cannot go back to 'business as usual'

Like every other pandemic that the world has experienced in the past, coronavirus will eventually come to an end. It will be defeated, and life will return to normal. But it will teach us an important lesson: the need to invest in health infrastructure across the world, and particularly in Africa.

For centuries, global and national agendas have given premium to wealth creation and less attention to healthcare. Indeed, the pursuit of wealth has even come at the expense of the environment. Budgetary allocations for health have been woefully inadequate compared to other sectors.

Just imagine this: if what we are experiencing today was a virus that attacked machines and not human beings, normal life would go on – handshakes, kisses and hugs would still symbolise friendship, love and comfort and not the threat of infection. From now on, we must prioritise human health collectively, not individually.

Globally, as of April 6, 2020, there have been 1,174,866 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 64,541 deaths, reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

We may not have reached the apex of this pandemic, and what we have seen so far from other countries suggests that Africa is a ticking time-bomb.

If advanced economies like Italy, Spain, the United States and France are struggling to contain the wrath of this pandemic, then it has a devastating potential in poor countries.

Lifestyle, beliefs, culture and economic conditions offer fertile grounds for disease to thrive. One would have thought that the Ebola outbreak, which began in 2014, would have opened the eyes of key stakeholders in Africa to consider the strengthening of health systems as a key priority. But this has not been the case.

At the beginning of the Ebola epidemic, fear and panic prompted some African governments to pay attention to the shoring up of their health systems. Yet, when the grip of the epidemic loosened, ‘business as usual’ continued.

Africa cannot afford to go back to business as usual when the COVID-19 pandemic is finally halted. Such an attitude would be akin to settling down to sleep while our roof is on fire.

There are too many health issues to be fixed – from an inadequate number of healthcare professionals to a lack of health infrastructure.

At present, Africa is home to more than 1.3 billion people and bears one-third of the global disease burden – yet it accounts for only 3 per cent of the global health workforce.

The average physician density in sub-Saharan Africa stands at two doctors per 10,000 people.

Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa, has a physician density of three doctors to 10,000 people. Ethiopia has just one doctor per 10,000 people, even though it has the second largest population on the continent.

There is also a huge health infrastructure gap. An assessment by the WHO regarding the status of health infrastructure across the continent revealed woefully inadequate physical health infrastructure. Dispensaries and health centres are limited in supply.The shortage of these facilities makes access to primary healthcare a challenge to most rural residents.

Investing in quality health infrastructure makes sense from both economic and social perspectives. Indeed, there is ample evidence that investments in health infrastructure create an avenue for resilient societies and drive inclusive growth.

Development partners have a role to play. They can prevent the collapse of health systems in Africa by establishing special funding schemes to support the health expenditures of African countries.