The coronavirus pandemic has made clear that healthcare cooperation will be the crucial ‘stress test’ of the Africa-Europe partnership, heard the Africa-Europe Foundation High-Level Group of Personalities, the steering committee of the Foundation, on Friday.
COVID-19 has revealed the urgent need for action to implement more equitable vaccine distribution and laid bare the importance of longer-term collaboration on financing, technology, regulation and logistics to build resilience against the threat of future health emergencies on both continents.
“The last 15 months have shown that Africa has a lesson to teach the world in matters of adaptability, flexibility and readiness for innovation,” said one participant.
“This should be the ground for a respectful partnership that leverages the potential of our two continents,” they added. “We are together ready to cooperate equitably for better health outcomes for both Africa and Europe.”
The online meeting of the AEF’s High-Level Group was the first since the Foundation’s launch on 2 December 2020.
Steering Group members, including leading figures from politics, business and civil society from both sides of the Mediterranean, reviewed progress and looked ahead to strategic opportunities in the coming months, with a specific focus on healthcare and ways to ensure a successful and coordinated response to future crises.
Speakers recognised that the Africa-Europe partnership has, so far, not lived up to its potential during the COVID-19 crisis, notably due to ‘vaccine nationalism’ in Europe which has left millions of Africans unprotected.
However, there was praise for collaborative African initiatives, particularly the COVID-19 African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT) which has secured a provisional 270mn doses for Africans.
As well as more equitable short-term vaccine distribution, Europe-Africa collaboration should support a transfer of technical and manufacturing capacity to Africa, as well as data, diagnostic and therapeutic skills to improve preparedness for the future threats.
Participants stressed this is not a one-way street and that Europe has much to learn from Africa’s experience in dealing with health emergencies, including its response to COVID-19.
The meeting saw significant debate on options for raising financing for improved healthcare in Africa, including through greater public spending, mobilising private investment, development assistance, ‘health bonds’ and potentially greater use of Special Drawing Rights at the International Monetary Fund. Solutions should be found that do not add to Africa’s debt, speakers said.
Contributors underscored the need to ‘remove the fear of working with Africa’ among foreign investors, but they also stressed the huge potential of African private investment in supporting healthcare on the continent.
Regulatory, institutional and logistics improvements are needed to fully exploit that potential. “The problem is not the funds, the problem is we don’t yet have the right regulatory system to be able to put those funds to us,” said one speaker.
The immediate focus on COVID-19 should not lead to authorities neglecting other diseases, such as malaria and AIDS, that are killing more people in Africa. International pharmaceutical companies, in particular, have to be pressed into investing more in remedies for deadly diseases that affect mainly Africans.
Solutions to underlying health issues, such as the need to spread clean-cooking resources that are vital for improving the lives of African women, are also urgently needed.
More action is vital too at the nexus of health and environmental protection, particularly the impact of climate change and biodiversity loss on human wellbeing.
“Scientists are now telling us that we mismanaged nature,” cautioned a participant. “Biodiversity conservation issues are essential and … the global community has to also be very strong in this area.”
Members of the Steering Committed emphasised the unique role that the AEF can play in pushing a positive agenda by speaking as a united voice from both continents, sidestepping the rigidities of inter-governmental contacts, and especially by holding politicians and international bodies to account.
“What I heard so much over the last year – and I am so fed up with it – is that ‘nobody’s safe until everybody’s safe’. Every politician in the world says that, and then they hoard the vaccine,” complained a speaker. “We need some people to stand up and say, ‘hey, what is this crap? What is this nonsense? You guys need to deliver on what you say.’ We can say that as civilians, government people cannot say that to each other.”
The meeting of the High-Level Group of the Africa-Europe Foundation (AEF) is the first since the launch of the Foundation in December 2020, providing a platform to track progress and reaffirm a central focus on health cooperation in the Africa-Europe partnership.
Taking place in the framework of the Ibrahim Governance Weekend, the thematic focus of the HLG meeting is “ending this pandemic, preparing for the next”. While 2020 was supposed to be the year a rejuvenated Africa-Europe partnership took pride of place on the world stage, the official rhetoric of solidarity and messages that ‘we will not truly be safe until all of us are safe’ was undermined by the policy reality that saw vaccine doses bought overwhelmingly in the Global North, at the expense of the rest of the world. Despite loosening of lockdowns across many high-income countries, for most of the world, the pandemic is far from over. While many African countries had early successes in limiting the spread of COVID-19, several are now struggling to contain the virus as new, more infectious variants emerge.
In this context, the 4 June meeting of the HLG offers an opportunity to craft a new vision for global health governance, the outputs of which will shape the preparations of the inaugural Summit of the Africa-Europe Foundation from 28-30 June 2021 and the launch of the HLG flagship report on health on 13 October 2021.
The High-Level Group meeting is a closed roundtable, with participation open to members and invited guests.
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