Africa, the hopeful continent
By Cara Anna
At a lecture to peers this month, John Nkengasong showed images that once dogged Africa, with a magazine cover declaring it “The Hopeless Continent”.
Then he quoted Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah: “It is clear that we must find an African solution to our problems, and that this can only be found in African unity.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has fractured global relationships. But as the director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, Nkengasong has helped steer Africa’s 54 countries into an alliance praised as responding better than some richer countries, including the US.
A former US Centres for Disease Control (CDC) official, he modelled Africa’s version after his ex-employer. Nkengasong is pained to see the US agency struggle.
In an interview, he didn’t name US President Donald Trump but cited “factors we all know”.
While the US passed 200 000 Covid-19 deaths on Tuesday and the world approaches 1 million, Africa’s surge has been levelling off. Its 1.4 million confirmed cases are far from the horrors predicted. Antibody testing is expected to show many more infections, but most cases are asymptomatic. Just over 34 000 deaths are confirmed on the continent of 1.3 billion people.
“Africa is doing a lot of things right, the rest of the world isn’t,” said Gayle Smith, a former administrator with the US Agency for International Development. She’s watched in astonishment as Washington looks inward instead of leading the world. But Africa “is a great story and one that needs to be told”.
Nkengasong, whom the Gates Foundation honoured on Tuesday with its Global Goalkeeper Award as a “relentless proponent of global collaboration”, is the continent’s most visible narrator. The Cameroon-born virologist insists that Africa can stand up to Covid-19 if given a chance.
Early modelling assumed “a large number of Africans would just die”, Nkengasong said. The Africa CDC decided not to issue projections. “When I looked at the data and the assumptions, I wasn’t convinced.”
Health experts point to Africa’s youthful population as a factor in why Covid-19 hasn’t taken a larger toll, along with swift lockdowns and the later arrival of the virus.
“Be patient,” Nkengasong said. “There’s a lot we still don’t know.”
He warns against complacency, saying that a single case could spark a new surge.
As Africa’s top public health official leading an agency launched only three years ago, he plunged into the race for medical supplies and now a vaccine. At first, it was a shock.
“The collapse of global co-operation and a failure of international solidarity have shoved Africa out of the diagnostics market,” Nkengasong wrote in the journal, Nature, in April. “If Africa loses, the world loses.”
Supplies improved, and African countries have conducted 13 million tests, enough to cover 1% of the continent’s population. But the ideal is 13 million tests a month, he said.
He and other African leaders are haunted by the memories of 12 million Africans dying during the decade it took for affordable HIV drugs to reach the continent. That must not happen again, he said.
This week, world leaders gathered online for the biggest global endeavour since Covid-19 appeared – the UN General Assembly. If Nkengasong could address them, he would say: “We should be very careful that history doesn’t record us on the wrong side of it.”
African leaders said much the same. “The Covid-19 pandemic has shown we have no option but to depend on each other,” Ghana’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo, told the gathering on Monday.
Nkengasong urges African countries not to wait for help and rejects the image of the continent holding a begging bowl. The money is there, he said.
Acting on that idea, Africa’s public and private sectors created an online purchasing platform to focus their negotiating power, launched by the AU to buy directly from manufacturers. Governments can browse and buy rapid testing kits, N95 masks and ventilators, some manufactured in Africa in another campaign endorsed by heads of state. Impressed, Caribbean countries have signed on.
“It’s the only part of the world I’m aware of that... built a supply chain,” said Smith, the former USAID chief.
When the pandemic began, two African countries could test for Covid-19. Now all can.
Nkengasong was struck by how much information “doesn’t get translated” to member states, so the Africa CDC holds online training on everything from safely handling bodies to genomic surveillance.
“I look at Africa and I look at the US, and I’m more optimistic about Africa, to be honest, because of the leadership there and doing their best despite limited resources,” said Sema Sgaier, the director of the Surgo Foundation, which produced a Covid-19 vulnerability index for each region. She spoke even as Africa’s cases were surging weeks ago.
With vaccines the next urgent issue, African countries held a conference to insist on equitable access and explore manufacturing to end their reliance on the outside world. They began securing the late-stage clinical trials that have long been held outside the continent, aiming to land 10 as soon as possible.
Nkengasong said Africa needed at least 1.5 billion vaccine doses, enough to cover 60% of the population for “herd immunity” with the two likely required doses. That will cost about $10 billion ( about R168bn).
The World Health Organisation says Africa should receive at least 220 million doses through an international effort to develop and distribute a vaccine known as Covax.
That’s welcome but not enough, Nkengasong said. His next hurdle is how to deliver doses throughout the vast continent with the world’s worst infrastructure. Fewer than half of Africa’s countries have access to modern health-care facilities, he said.
Covid-19’s effects are “devastating” for Africa, from education to economies. Nkengasong plans a conference next year to press countries to increase health spending before the next pandemic.
“If we do not,” he said, “something is terribly wrong with us.” | AP
The Independent on Saturday