Please find the link and the text of the opening remarks of the Director-General of WHO at the emergency high-level virtual meeting of African ministers of health on the COVID-19 situation in Africa, held today, May 8 2021
By the Director-General of WHO
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, Honorable Ministers, dear colleagues and friends,
Hello, and thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to join you today.
Since the start of the pandemic, WHO has consistently called 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 this strategy has paid off. And I would like to thank His Excellency President Ramaphosa and Excellency Moussa Faki Mahamat for their leadership, as well as all the Ministers who attended the first meeting and have continued since then, as well as Excellence President Tshisekedi.
Although our continent has suffered, we have yet to see the same extent of devastation in Africa as in other regions. We have seen an encouraging drop in cases and deaths since the peak in mid-January; however, several countries on the continent continue to report sustained transmission and increases in some regions.
It is essential that none of us are complacent.
What is happening in many other parts of the world now can happen in our Africa if we let our guard down. In many countries, the emergence of rapidly spreading variants, combined with premature relaxation of public health and social measures, and inequitable distribution of vaccines, has tragic consequences as we all know.
But we know what works. Many countries have shown that with consistent and appropriate 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 in health systems and health services. New data from the WHO shows that as a result of COVID-19, 60 vaccination campaigns are currently on hold in 50 countries around the world, many of them in Africa.
Measles campaigns have now been delayed for more than a year and serious outbreaks have broken out. WHO and our partners are working with countries to restore immunization services.
Interruptions in HIV / AIDS services could result in as many as 500,000 additional deaths worldwide, and we all know Africa will bear the greatest burden. In Africa, tuberculosis and neglected tropical disease control services have been interrupted in about half of the countries, and malaria control services in more than a third. About half of the countries in the region report serious disruptions in services for noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and mental health.
WHO remains fully committed to assisting every AU Member State to restore, maintain and strengthen these essential services. And we remain fully committed to helping every AU Member State 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 are happy that with the support of COVAX, 47 countries on the African continent have started to vaccinate, but we know that the vaccine volumes are far from sufficient.
Africa has so far administered 19.6 million doses, or 2% of the global total. Meanwhile, 80% of all doses administered worldwide were in high and upper middle income countries.
The inequitable distribution of vaccines is not only a moral scandal, it is also economically and epidemiologically self-destructive. I have said this over and over again and the gap is very tragic between the haves and have-nots.
Of course, it is essential not only to increase access to these vital tools, but also to ensure that they are properly distributed and before they expire. It is imperative to ensure that the financial and human resources are available to reach the last mile.
WHO is working day by day to urgently increase the production and equitable distribution of vaccines, with countries, companies and partners, including the African Vaccine Procurement Task Force and the African Manufacturing Partnership vaccines.
We are seeing progress. As you know, the United States has announced its support for the World Trade Organization’s efforts to forgo intellectual property protection for COVID-19 vaccines, which is very historic. We thank South Africa for its bold leadership in this initiative, and we call on other countries to follow suit, and on Africa as a continent to move this agenda forward.
We continue to work with countries and companies to find ways to share technology and know-how for these difficult-to-manufacture vaccines.
Excellencies, I would like to leave you with three specific areas which I believe should be our priority in the coming months: production, prevention and preparedness.
First, the production. The pandemic has demonstrated that Africa cannot rely solely on vaccine imports from the rest of the world. We need to 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 hope will strengthen regulatory capacity and boost local production.
I congratulate my brother Michel Sidibe on his appointment as AU Special Envoy for WADA, and we look forward to working closely with him and we are already supporting him through the African Union. I also congratulate the Africa CDC and the African Union for the launch of the Partnership for Vaccine Manufacturing in Africa last month and we seek the support of AU countries for the draft resolution on local production at the next World Health Assembly.
Second, prevention. Vaccines give us all hope for light at the end of the tunnel. But to quote my friend Tom Frieden, we cannot afford to be blinded by this light. The same public health measures that have been the foundation of the continental strategy must remain at the heart of the response. This means increased surveillance, increased testing, careful contact tracing, sustained quarantine, and compassionate care.
And that means empowering and involving communities to continue with the individual precautions that we know work: physically distancing, avoiding crowds, wearing masks, washing hands, covering coughs and opening windows.
It may sound like a broken record, but these steps work. We must all stay the course.
We encourage the use of digital tools like the Trusted Travel program for the protection of public health, but we need to ensure that they don’t become another reason some people are left behind.
And third, preparation. Even though we are focused on putting out this fire, we must prepare for the next one. We must all learn the lessons that the pandemic teaches us and do all we can to prepare for, prevent, detect and respond quickly to future epidemics and pandemics.
It’s not someone else’s job. This is our job: every leader, every government, every institution, at all levels.
We thank the AU Member States who have expressed their support for the idea of a pandemic preparedness and response treaty, and we seek the support of all Member States for the treaty during the Assembly. World Health Organization later this month. We know that 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, anchored in a strengthened WHO, autonomous and endowed with sustainable resources.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the division only fuels the flames of insecurity and makes us all less secure. But with a commitment of trust, cooperation and solidarity, we are all more secure.
I thank you.
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