Leveraging Regional Leadership: African policies guide health efforts on the continent

Dr. Diana Nambatya Nsubuga, UHC Co-Chair Africa and Deputy Country Director Living Goods, Uganda

Kadidiatou Toure, Technical Officer, Advocacy and External Relations, Partnership for Maternal Newborn and Child Health

Over the last five months, the world watched as governments responded to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. While we watched it all play out, one lesson stuck out: Countries can’t do this alone. This virus doesn’t recognize borders, and differing regulations from country-to-country are obstacles in curbing the virus. Strong regional bodies—like the African Union (AU)—are critical in coordinating meaningful and swift action. Recognizing its value and the need to provide guidance and oversight in the health sector after the West African Ebola outbreak, the AU came together to establish the Africa CDC in 2017. The Africa CDC is tasked with strengthening the capacity and capability of Africa’s public health institutions and partnerships to better detect and respond to disease threats and outbreaks.

When COVID-19 first emerged on the African continent, both the AU and Africa CDC leapt to action to provide a coordinated response. In March, Africa CDC launched the Africa Joint Continental Strategy for the COVID-19 Outbreak. We were honored to part of a group of experts consulted to create the most effective strategy possible. In this consultation, we stressed the importance of continuously delivering essential health services—these services could not disrupted as part of the COVID-19 response.

A recent study published in The Lancet estimates a significant increase in preventable child and maternal deaths and the Global Fund has reported that up to 75% of their malaria, HIV and TB programs have already experienced disruptions. Statistics like this are why it was imperative continuation of services be addressed in the Africa Joint Continental Strategy for COVID-19 Outbreak. Africa CDC took up the call, and now it is time to include plans for the continuity of essential public health operations, including maternal and child health programs.

The Africa Joint Continental Strategy for COVID-19 Outbreak comes on the heels of the AU pushing country governments to align with the existing Africa Health Strategy 2016–2030. This advocacy was done as part of our work with Living Goods, WHO and the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (PMNCH). The PMNCH, in line with its new 2021–2025 strategy, is increasing focus on advocacy and regional mobilization for improved women’s, children’s and adolescents’ health.

Part of this advocacy involves encouraging AU member states to implement the Africa Health Strategy, which includes robust recommendations on reproductive, maternal and child health and has the potential to improve health outcomes across the continent. At the recent AU Assembly of the Union, AU chairperson, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, called on his fellow Heads of State to increase investments into country health plans aligned to regional strategy.

The AU and the Africa CDC are providing health leadership in a time where it is desperately needed. The experiences of African countries—and their health challenges, including COVID-19—are unique. The regional response and leadership can help leverage expertise across countries and implement strong strategies to help align policies and investments for a strong and healthy future together. It is critical that this response address the needs of the continent’s women, children and adolescents.

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