April 25, 2020

Global Health: all eyes on COVID-19

South Africans recently received the news that the lockdown has been extended for another two weeks. Although frustrating, it’s a necessary measure when our lives are at risk. As of 10 April 2020, COVID-19 has infected more than one and a half million people worldwide and lockdowns have proved effective in reducing the spread.

“In the two weeks before the lockdown, the average daily increase in new cases [in South Africa] was around 42%. Since the start of the lockdown, the average daily increase has been around 4%,” announced President Cyril Ramaphosa during his public address on 9 April 2020.

Well over 100 countries worldwide had instituted either a full or partial lockdown by the end of March 2020, affecting billions of people. However, our health system, and the global health system, would surely crumble under the weight of the cases should lockdowns not be extended and/or respected.

“We are at a critical point in the global response to COVID-19 – we need everyone to get involved in this massive effort to keep the world safe,” says Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organisation’s Director-General.

With all hands on deck to combat COVID-19, wealthy countries are in a position to buy out masks, gloves and test kits amidst the global scramble for these medical necessities. UNICEF has only managed to receive a tenth of the 240 million masks requested by poor countries. And all the while, the diseases and patients which were there before this pandemic still persist. 

Dr Shakira Choonara, who is no stranger to the realities and challenges in the health sector, in Africa and globally, took the time to enter our STEAM Room.

Tell us about a bit about yourself

I am an independent public health practitioner (research and advocacy). My field of work includes health policy and system research; HIV; gender equality; and youth development. I’m also a special appointment to the African Union. I’m 30 years old and Most recently, I have spoken out, very resolutely, against youth tokenism at the continental body on this front.

I live and work all over the continent including working virtually (which I’ve done for the past decade). I’m now in Johannesburg, based in South Africa amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tell us about the work you do and the things you get up to (pre-Covid)

As a millennial, I live and hangout on social media; it’s where I get my news, push critical thought and areas for advocacy. I catch up with youth on the continent everyday: it’s not deliberate, though, we check in as friends and colleagues to collaborate or just have some laughs.

I have recently ventured into being an independent practitioner. I am currently working on a range of global health projects linked to gender equality and HIV, universal health coverage in Africa, youth advocacy and the integration of health care policies and services. The most part of my day is centred on these projects with a range of international organisations, whether it’s calls, report-writing, data analysis, planning, pinning down advocacy, or implementation.

I also try and squeeze in a tonne of writing especially through blogging. I keep myself daily updated with the latest trends in global health. I often serve as an expert in the media and for multiple organisations. So, my days are sometimes showbiz but there is a lot of research and preparation that goes into this.

On the personal front I do cooking, cleaning, household chores, just being human. Total disclosure: I am a soapy addict! I miss Isidingo (already), I still catch 7de Laan and Scandal – they are my downtime.

Every day I dedicate some time to my dreams and ideas, initiatives I am interested in rolling out. I dream big, every single day!

How has COVID-19 impacted the health sector?

Working in the field of global health, this pandemic has jolted us all into response efforts and doing everything we possibly can: from tracking the research, ensuring messages are translatable, and working with civil society to ensure relief measures are implemented. Global health is directly affected and everything is now centred on COVID-19; for example, our network discussions, our work projects, research articles, even journal calls, are now centred on corona.

At a more operational level, it is difficult to implement or draw attention to any other global health issues, at this time. It is a concern as there are other essential services which must also be delivered, such as antiretrovirals, sexual and reproductive health services. There is some progress in now tying these issues to gender equality and the pandemic.

Personally, the way we work and organise has changed in a heartbeat. Thankfully, I have completed my fieldwork and in-country work on the rest of the continent already, but all facilitation gigs are now cancelled. My scheduled international travel to other countries has been cancelled and even any further data collection is on ice unless it can be done virtually. But we need to now figure out how to reach patients and women, specifically those in rural or remote areas, as we try and push through with ongoing work.

The worrying reality for me as well, is, while I have projects lined up, I wonder what all these developments would mean for those of us who are independents or are self-employed. We are probably set to be the hardest hit.

On the positive front, we have realised new ways of working, more efficient ways are also setting in and this would be an interesting trend to monitor on how the field of global health and experts adapt to these changing times.

What do you think can be done to help the global health sector recover?

As mentioned, on the services front there must be concerted effort towards implementing and strengthening our health systems; this is the only way long-term. Coupled with this, governments must take all emergency measures and response measures possible; essential services cannot suffer. This is a non-negotiable and we all have a responsibility to make sure that services continue.

Many young people in the field of public health are already unemployed; I am worried about graduates falling even further off the radar. We need to find ways to involve them in the COVID-19 response. Perhaps, draw on their expertise immediately, even if it’s in a voluntary capacity.

Civil society is key to the entire response: let’s face it, government is always marred by bureaucracy, in many countries by corruption. I see CSOs continuing with ongoing work but donors should also allow them to direct resources, programming and even hire, to help deal with the COVID-19 response, as well as pushing accountability.

On the patient/citizen front, the South African government is now paying attention to public transport, water and sanitation and housing. It’s a pity it has taken a pandemic to take action but this must be sustained. Long-term, it’s welcome and post the virus, it would aid in relief and recovery. Short-term measures, for example water tanks, must be coupled with long-term water and sanitation infrastructures, otherwise we will have this situation in every pandemic.

Finally, I am penning some thoughts on the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement which is meant to be operationalised this year. Africa must get itself into gear to mass produce protective equipment for healthcare workers, given the shortage, this is needed for the response.

As we prepare for life after the lockdown, we are aware that our health system has suffered a blow and more must be done. As Dr Shakira has highlighted, there are things which can be done, from government, to civil society organisations, and citizens can see how they can help with the skills and resources they have. This pandemic is stretching us and needs the entire global community to realise that our survival rests in each others’ hands.

We must do what must be done to make it through – in the bigger scheme of things, what is another two weeks in lockdown?

About the Author:

Amandla Kwinana is a strategic content and communications specialist and member of the Womandla Foundation STEAM Committee.    

About the STEAM Room

The STEAM Room is a space for women in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) to explore innovative solutions to the challenges facing our communities and share intriguing stories from their respective worlds. The platform also provides an opportunity for STEAM entrepreneurs to profile their ventures. As with a traditional steam room, women step out of the STEAM Room feeling rejuvenated. 

SOCIAL MEDIA – Dr Shakira Choonara:

  • Twitter: @ChoonaraShakira

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