/ 8 April 2020

Meet the doctor leading Africa’s fight to contain the coronavirus pandemic

Dr Matshidiso Moeti
Leading from the front: Dr Matshidiso Moeti is the World Health Organisation’s regional director for Africa. She hasn’t been sleeping much recently, but is trying to exercise more and stay positive. (L Cipriani/WHO)

Every Thursday for the past month, journalists have dialled in from all over the continent to attend the virtual Covid-19 briefing by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The briefing is delivered from Brazzaville by Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s regional director for Africa, who calmly details the latest developments in Africa’s fight to contain the coronavirus

In doing so, switching effortlessly between English and French, Moeti has become the continent’s public face for this fight: a reassuring voice in the midst of our collective panic; an anchor in the gathering storm.

It helps that she has seen this all before. During her decades-long career in public health, Moeti has battled two other major epidemics. Her worst experience, she says — worse even than the current pandemic — was confronting HIV/Aids. When it first appeared, in the 1980s, there was no treatment. “It was the sense of helplessness, of not being able to do anything about all these people dying,” she told the Mail & Guardian in a telephonic interview.

Eventually, Moeti found a way to help. In the early 2000s, she led the WHO’s pioneering “3 by 5” initiative — an effort to get antiretrovirals to three million people in middle- and lower-income countries by 2005. Although it fell short of the target, reaching 1.3-million people, the initiative is “widely credited with jump-starting the global effort to widen treatment access to people living with HIV in low- and middle-income countries”, according to the HIV/Aids-focused charity Avert.

Since being elected to her current position in 2015 — the first woman in the role — Moeti was also at the forefront of the WHO’s response to the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

There are some similarities between the response to Ebola and Covid-19, she says, especially around the need to convince people to change their behaviours. To contain Ebola, cultural practices like washing the dead before burial had to change; for Covid-19, it is about persuading people to take physical distancing seriously.

On the frontlines: A worker disinfecting the Medina area in Dakar last month. The Senegalese government is being firm about its Covid-19 restrictions. (John Wessels/AFP)

But other aspects of the current challenge are totally different. “When there was an Ebola outbreak, it was an African problem. This is a global problem. Some of the challenges [for Africa] relate to the fact that those countries from whom you would be expecting help are themselves struggling,” Moeti said.

For that reason, it has been difficult to mobilise funding, equipment and technical assistance. And in some ways, the draconian border restrictions imposed in many African countries have been counterproductive for the WHO’s work, as they have restricted the organisation’s ability to move experts and supplies to the country’s that need them most.

“Some of our countries simply don’t have the expertise needed to do things quickly enough,” Moeti said.

Moeti was born in South Africa, growing up in the township of KwaThema near Springs, east of Johannesburg. Both of her parents were doctors. Her father was a member of the ANC Youth League, and she remembers when, as a small child, apartheid policemen stormed their home. They overturned bookcases and tore up the chicken coop, searching (in vain) for weapons.

Moeti was a precociously intelligent child. She was just 10 when she began high school at a boarding school in Eswatini (then Swaziland). It was partly to improve her educational prospects that the family moved to Botswana a year later. There, her mother helped to introduce family planning services, while her father became the Smallpox Commissioner for Southern Africa. In this capacity, he would verify suspected cases of the disease in Botswana; conduct assessments in other countries in the region; and was part of the global team trying to eradicate the disease completely.

Africa is no stranger to epidemics: the 2018 Ebola outbreak in the DRC killed 2 264 people. Health workers carry a coffin in Butembo, the epicentre of the outbreak. (Getty Images)

“I remember him going out, doing follow-up with patients. My father would go with a driver and disappear into the bush for days.”

The massive global effort to combat smallpox eventually succeeded: the disease was eradicated in 1979.

Despite her parents’ enormous contribution to public health in the region, Moeti was determined not to follow in their footsteps.

“You know, when I was a 16-year-old, growing up with two doctors, I decided I did not want to be a doctor.” She laughs. Sure enough, she became a doctor. “When I ended up doing medicine, I decided I would definitely not get married to a doctor.” She laughs again. Moeti married a doctor, who works in public health.

After obtaining degrees in medicine and public health in London, Moeti joined Botswana’s health ministry as a clinician and public health specialist. From there she moved to the United Nations Children’s Fund and then the UN HIV/Aids programme. She joined the WHO in 1999, and has been there ever since. In February, she was re-elected by the WHO executive board to a second term as regional director for Africa — a strong endorsement of the work she has been doing.

Moeti did not know then how much her life, and her job, was about to change. “I’m not getting very much sleep,” she says. Her remit is formidable: not only does she have to figure out how best to respond to the unprecedented threat posed by Covid-19, but she also has to work with leaders and ministries across Africa to persuade them to take incredibly difficult decisions.

Nor can she forget the continent’s other health crises — which, in normal circumstances, would take up all her time.

These are not normal circumstances, of course. But there are some compensations. The restrictions on air travel mean that Moeti cannot travel out of Brazzaville, where the WHO regional headquarters are located. So she’s spending more time at home than ever.

After a long day, when she gets home, she puts on some jazz — she likes Miles Davis and Sarah Vaughan — and gets onto her exercise bike. Despite everything, she says, “I’m feeling a bit healthier. I’m positive.”

And if Dr Matshidiso Moeti — who knows more about this crisis than almost anyone else on this continent — can stay positive, there’s no reason for the rest of us not to.

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