Prioritising health in the climate and development nexus: time is of the essence

#CriticalThinking

Africa

Picture of Paul Walton
Paul Walton

Executive Director of the Africa-Europe Foundation

Picture of Saliem Fakir
Saliem Fakir

Executive Director of the African Climate Foundation

The UN’s recent COP26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow failed to deliver on the 1.5oC by 2050 target. On the contrary, the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) submitted by 151 countries at COP26 will put the global average temperature on a trajectory towards 2.5oC warming by the end of the century. As climate scientists warn, this is set to have devastating impacts for countries all over the world, but particularly for those in the developing world.

While countries grapple with the climate crisis, the world continues to be ravaged by COVID-19. The fourth wave in Europe has seen Austria’s government resort to lockdowns once again, with widespread speculation that other countries in Europe may follow suit. German Health Minister Jens Spahn recently warned: “By the end of this winter everyone in Germany will either be vaccinated, recovered or dead.” This in a region where, by late August 2021, 70% of the adult population had been fully vaccinated. What Europe’s fourth wave means for Africa, in terms of both public health and economics, is yet to be seen. But with only 7% of the African population fully vaccinated by late October 2021, things do not bode well.

The international response, and particularly that of the European Union and the United States, to the spread of the Omicron variant in South Africa also raises serious questions about the nature and strength of African relations with the Global North. Without definitive evidence that the variant originated in Africa, the global response was less of a reflection of strategic public health policy in action, but rather highlighted the inequities that have come to characterise the priorities of global health and economic systems today. Instead of lauding South Africa for their detection, sequencing and transparency, the response of the global community, and Western nations in particular, was to rapidly introduce travel bans and restrictions on several Southern African countries.

Lack of access to finance, low manufacturing capacity and the monopolisation of supplies have greatly impeded Africa’s ability to vaccinate its population

With scientists and medical practitioners raising alarm bells about the impacts of climate changes on human health, particularly for those in the developing world, COVID-19 should serve as a warning to world leaders to fast track climate commitments and prioritise international cooperation. While COP26 failed to deliver, COP27 may serve as an opportunity for African countries and the rest of the developing world to elevate health on the global agenda and to mobilise for greater climate commitments from the international community. In the meantime, other important opportunities exist for countries to collaborate and to pave the way for greater climate and development outcomes. The upcoming EU-AU Summit in February 2022 is one such example.

It is in this context that the Africa-Europe Foundation (AEF) recently released its High-Level Group Report on ‘Pandemic Preparedness and the Future of Healthcare’ in October 2021, with an explicit focus on the climate, health and development nexus. The report highlights a few key interventions that need to be fast tracked to enable more resilient healthcare systems to respond to growing climate threats. These include investment in finance, manufacturing capacity and supply chains; the mainstreaming of health into the climate-development nexus; and exploring opportunities to digitise healthcare, including the use of artificial intelligence (AI).

Having concluded that lack of access to finance, low manufacturing capacity and the monopolisation of supplies have greatly impeded Africa’s ability to vaccinate its population, the AEF report recommends that supporting the capacity of African countries to produce their own vaccines, pharmaceuticals and medical equipment will play a key role in strengthening Africa’s healthcare systems. It suggests that one important lever to unlock this manufacturing capacity will be to provide support as multilateral financing institutions mainstream health into their climate and development priorities.

We need to draw urgent lessons from the pandemic and put measures in place to guard against climate-related health impacts

The AEF report also suggests that understanding the climate crisis as a public health crisis will act as a catalyst for the delivery of measures like clean cooking solutions on the African continent. Given the pressure on Africa’s limited number of healthcare professionals, it also identifies AI, data collection, and telemedicine as opportunities to fulfil Africa’s medical capacity needs. In this regard, the report also recommends the use of AI and Big Data to support the creation of a comprehensive ‘Foresight Observatory and Health Data Space for Africa’ to monitor statistics and trends in climate and health and to promote the exchange of, and access to, different types of health data for medical researchers and policymakers.

What is clear from the recent climate negotiations and the ongoing COVID-19 crisis is that ‘business as usual’ is no longer an option. We need to draw urgent lessons from the pandemic and put measures in place to guard against climate-related health impacts. A balanced Africa-Europe partnership based on mutual learning and collaboration can go a long way in mustering the resources and capacities necessary to pave the way for climate resilient and inclusive health systems on both continents.

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