/ 12 May 2020

Africa’s ill-resourced healthcare systems need immediate revamping

Rwanda Health Virus
A staff member of the Rwanda Biomedical Center (RBC) screens passengers at a bus station after the government suspended all unnecessary movements for two weeks to curb the spread of COVID-19 Coronavirus in Kigali, Rwanda, on March 22, 2020. - African countries have been among the last to be hit by the global COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic but as cases rise, many nations are now taking strict measures to block the deadly illness. (Photo by Simon Wohlfahrt/AFP)


Africa’s healthcare narrative can be compared with a bus rambling down a dirt road. From inadequate health workers and deplorable conditions of service to poor infrastructure and lack of equipment, the stories are similar all over the continent.

Now, with the Covid-19 pandemic, leaders have been forced to face the precarious conditions of the continent’s health sector that have long been ignored.

In April, an open letter addressed to African leaders and cosigned by dozens of African intellectuals, described the continent’s health situation amid the coronavirus pandemic as “critical”.

“… Health has to be conceived as essential public good, the status of health workers needs to be enhanced, hospital infrastructure need to be upgraded to a level that allows everybody, including leaders themselves, to receive adequate treatment in Africa …”

The situation is grim. Leaders themselves do not trust the system. While they fly abroad seeking better healthcare, their citizens languish in under-resourced and exhausted public health systems.

In desperate times such as these, the continent’s health workers are invaluable. But they are also vulnerable. As they respond to the pandemic, there is no guarantee of their own safety. A Nigerian doctor recently died while managing a case in his home country. Such are the dreadful prospects of health professionals on the continent as well as abroad in this time of coronavirus.

There are more Nigerian doctors in Los Angeles in the United States than there are in Nigeria and more Ghanaian doctors in New York City than there are in Ghana, according to former African Union ambassador to the US Dr. Arikana Chihombori-Quoa. This is unsurprising: African leaders have not only consistently refused to invest in their own health systems but have also failed to learn any lessons.

During the 2014 to 2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, over 11 000 people died across Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. Sierra Leone alone lost over 200 health professionals, pilling huge pressure on the already understaffed and under-resourced health system.

In Burundi, the situation is not encouraging either. The outbreak of malaria has reached epidemic proportions, with half the population infected and the death toll, 1 800, almost equalling the deaths caused by Ebola in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.

Statistics such as these lead to three main questions: Why is the healthcare situation as dire as it is on the continent? Are leaders really serious about changing the continent’s healthcare woes? Are they cognizant of the figures?

National surveillance officer Lieutenant-Colonel Henry S. Bangura is a public health specialist in charge of contact-tracing and managing confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Sierra Leone. “Africa’s health systems lack investment. Health systems come with upgrading the skills and knowledge of healthcare workers and providing them the right equipment and facilities. We are still struggling to achieve these,” Bangura said, adding that urgent efforts needed to be made to close these gaps.

But all is not dark and gloomy — Bangura believes that lessons learnt from Ebola are now bearing fruits in the fight against Covid-19. “The lessons learned from the Ebola outbreak must have put the government in a better place to implement an early preparedness plan that has made the response to Covid-19 somehow simple,” he said of Sierra Leone’s response to the coronavirus.

With many African countries struggling to battle the pandemic, Senegal is not only containing the virus, but it is now developing a $1 Covid-19 diagnostic test kit that can provide results in 10 minutes. Although the test kit is still being tested, the small African country of around 16-million people appears to be leading the way on coronavirus response with the highest patient recovery numbers, 296, on the continent and third in the world ahead of the US and France.

What Senegal has done is show African leaders that investment in technology and innovative research are key to revamping healthcare on the continent.

For Bangura, solving Africa’s health problems requires a collective approach. “African leaders should establish a continental response system that will provide adequate technical support to countries with inadequate health systems,” he said.

In their open letter, African intellectuals called on leaders to use Covid-19 as a springboard to create better healthcare for their people. “In consequence, the coronavirus pandemic reveals the deficit of a collective continental response, both in the health and other sectors. More than ever, we call upon leaders to ponder the necessity to adopt a concerted approach to governance sectors related to public health, fundamental research in all disciplines and public policy.”

Now is the time to rewrite a collective script of Africa’s development agenda and the well being of its people. The time to invest in the health sector and its human capital is now. No more excuses.

This story first appeared in The Continent, the new weekly pan-African publication designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Get your free copy here