WHO Director General’s opening remarks at the high-level emergency virtual meeting of African Ministers of Health on the COVID-19 situation in Africa
GENEVA, Switzerland: Please find the weblink and text of the WHO Director General’s opening remarks at the high-level emergency virtual meeting of African Ministers of Health on the COVID-19 situation in Africa, held today 8 May, 2021
By WHO Director General:
Your Excellency President Tshisekedi, Your Excellency President Ramaphosa, Your Excellency Moussa Faki Mahamat,Your Excellency Professor Moustafa Mijiyawa, My colleagues Dr Moeti, Dr Nkengasong, Excellencies, Honourable Ministers, dear colleagues and friends,
Good afternoon and thank you so much for the opportunity to join you today.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, WHO has called consistently for national unity and regional and global solidarity. And that is exactly what the African Union has demonstrated.
Africa is the only region to have developed a unified continental strategy on COVID-19. And that strategy has delivered results. And I would like to thank his Excellency President Ramaphosa and Excellency Moussa Faki Mahamat for their leadership and to all Ministers who participated in the first meeting and pushed on since then, and also to Excellency President Tshisekedi.
Although our continent has suffered, we have not yet seen the same scale of devastation in Africa as we have in some other regions. We have seen an encouraging decline in cases and deaths since the peak in mid-January; however, several countries in the continent continue to report sustained transmission and increases in some areas.
It is critical that none of us are complacent.
What is happening now in many other parts of the world can happen in our Africa if we let down our guard. In many countries, the emergence of rapidly spreading variants, combined with premature easing of public health and social measures, and the inequitable distribution of vaccines, is having tragic consequences as we all know.
But we know what works. There are many countries that have shown that with a consistent and tailored use of proven public health measures, this virus can be controlled, even without vaccines.
Although our continent has seen fewer cases and deaths than other regions, Africa has suffered from major disruptions to health systems and health services. New WHO data show that as a result of COVID-19, 60 immunization campaigns are currently suspended in 50 countries globally, including many in Africa.
Measles campaigns have now been delayed for more than a year, and serious outbreaks have erupted. WHO and our partners are working with countries to restore immunization services.
The disruptions to services for HIV/AIDS could potentially result in as many as five hundred thousand excess deaths globally, and we all know that Africa will bear the heaviest burden. In Africa, services for tuberculosis and neglected tropical diseases have been disrupted in about half of countries, and malaria services in more than one third. About half of the countries in the region report severe disruptions for services for non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and mental health.
WHO remains totally committed to supporting every AU Member State to restore, maintain and strengthen these essential services. And we remain totally committed to supporting every AU Member State to access the tools to end this pandemic, including vaccines.
We are all painfully aware of the shocking disparity in the global distribution of vaccines. We’re pleased that with the support of COVAX, 47 countries in the African continent have started vaccinating, but we know the volumes of vaccines are nowhere near enough.
So far, Africa has administered 19.6 million doses, or 2% of the global total. Meanwhile, 80% of all doses administered globally have been in high and upper middle-income countries.
The inequitable distribution of vaccines is not just a moral outrage, it is also economically and epidemiologically self-defeating. I have said this many times and the gap is very tragic between the have and have-nots.
Of course, it is critical not only to increase access to these life-saving tools, but also to make sure they are distributed properly and before they expire. Ensuring that financial and human resources are available to reach the last mile is imperative.
WHO is working day in and day out to urgently increase the production and equitable distribution of vaccines, with countries, companies and partners, including the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team and the Partnership for African Vaccine Manufacturing.
We are seeing some progress. As you know, the United States has announced its support for efforts in the World Trade Organization to waive intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines, that is very historic. We thank South Africa for its bold leadership in this initiative, and we are calling on other countries to follow suit, and for Africa as a continent to push this agenda forward.
We continue to work with countries and companies to find ways of sharing technology and know-how for these difficult-to-make vaccines.
Excellencies, I would like to leave you with three specific areas that I believe must be our priority in the coming months: production, prevention and preparation.
First, production.The pandemic has demonstrated that Africa cannot rely solely on imports of vaccines from the rest of the world. We must build that capacity, not only for COVID-19 vaccines, but for other vaccines and medical products. WHO remains committed to working with the African Union to establish the African Medicines Agency, which we expect to strengthen regulatory capacity and stimulate local production.
I congratulate my brother Michel Sidibe on his appointment as AU Special Envoy for the AMA, and we look forward to working closely with him and we are already supporting him through the African Union. I also commend the Africa CDC and the African Union for the launch of the Partnership for African Vaccine Manufacturing last month.And we seek the support of AU countries for the draft resolution at on local production at the forthcoming World Health Assembly.
Second, prevention. Vaccines are giving us all hope of light at the end of the tunnel. But to quote my friend Tom Frieden, we cannot allow ourselves to be blinded by that light. The same public health measures that have been the bedrock of the continental strategy must remain central to the response. That means strengthened surveillance, increased testing, careful contact tracing, supported quarantine, and compassionate care.
And it means empowering and engaging communities to continue with the individual precautions that we know work: physical distancing, avoiding crowds, wearing masks, cleaning hands, covering coughs and opening windows.
We may sound like a broken record, but these measures work. We must all stay the course.
We encourage the use of digital tools such as the Trusted Travel programme for safeguarding public health, but we must take care to ensure that they do not become another reason that some people are left behind.
And third, preparation. Even as we focus on extinguishing this fire, we must prepare for the next one. We must all learn the lessons the pandemic is teaching us and do everything we can to prepare for, prevent, detect and respond rapidly to future epidemics and pandemics.
That’s not someone else’s job. That’s our job: every leader, every government, every institution, at every level.
We thank those AU Member States that have expressed support for the idea of a Treaty on pandemic preparedness and response, and we seek the support of all Member States for the treaty at the World Health Assembly later this month. We know the pandemic treaty will be a game-changer, and prepare us well for the future. Such a treaty would provide a framework for international cooperation and solidarity, rooted in a strengthened, empowered and sustainably resourced WHO.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that division only fans the flames of insecurity and makes us all less safe. But with a commitment to trust, cooperation and solidarity, we are all safer.
I thank you.