Inside a historic partnership to Save Lives and Livelihoods in Africa

Inside a historic partnership to Save Lives and Livelihoods in Africa

This article originally appeared on African Business Magazine and is written by Sarah Ooko.

In a rural town in central Kenya, a group of community health volunteers makes their way door to door, sharing messages about how to prevent COVID-19.

They have been at it since 2020. At first, they focused on the basics: wash your hands, wear a mask, keep your distance from others. When vaccines began landing in Kenya, their message evolved: vaccines are safe, tested, and proven.

James Kabue, one of the itinerant health evangels, recalls the joy he felt when vaccines became available. As a front-line health worker, James witnessed first-hand the effect that COVID-19 was having on the community.

“Most people lived in fear thinking that it was only a matter of time before they got the disease and died. And when cases started rising, we feared that our health systems would collapse,” he says.

Part of his job, he felt, was to mitigate that fear, while encouraging as many people as possible to get vaccinated to save lives and livelihoods.

Beatrice is one of the individuals he convinced to get the shot. An elderly woman with pre-conditions, she was at particular risk of suffering severe symptoms—and possibly death—at the hands of the virus.

“We had been told that the elderly people were at great risk of suffering from the severe effects of COVID-19, especially those with pre-existing health conditions like me. So, I was more than happy to get the vaccine after I was informed that it was safe and would not harm me,” she says.

Andrew, another believer and early adopter of vaccines, reflects with gratitude on his vaccination: “I had seen people sell all their property to meet medical bills after they got admitted into the hospital due to Coronavirus disease complications. In the end, many still lost their lives. This was sad and it really bothered me a lot.”

While Africa has made significant progress in driving vaccination rates, there is still a long way to go. Today, less than 20 percent of Africans have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19—the lowest rate of vaccination of any region. At the same time, the virus has claimed the lives of over 250,000 people in the region, and more than.

COVID-19 has also had profound economic impacts—leading to significant losses of jobs and livelihoods and pushing millions below the poverty line. Vaccines are important not just for public health but for economic recovery in a continent that simply can’t afford more lockdowns.

 

The Mastercard Foundation and Africa CDC are working together to help deliver vaccination for Africa under their $1.5 billion Saving Lives and Livelihoods initiative. It is the single largest philanthropic investment in public health to date with an African institution. Together, the two organizations are collaborating to acquire more than 65 million vaccines and deliver millions more vaccinations, to help Africa reach its goal of ensuring 70 percent of its population is vaccinated by the end of 2022.

“The support from the Foundation is helping us to address the pressing needs of our African Union Member States who are being involved and consulted each step of the way, as the implementation is being done. Consequently, this initiative enjoys buy-in from the top political leadership in the continent as it is African-led and owned,” says Dr. Tajudeen, Head of the Division of Public Health Institutes and Research at the Africa CDC as well as the Manager of the Saving Lives and Livelihoods initiative.

“We are not stopping at the purchases,” he adds. “It is one thing to have vaccines available and another to ensure that they reach the people they are intended for and are used.”

Already the Saving Lives and Livelihoods initiative has delivered nearly 12 million vaccines; deployed rapid health responders to expedite vaccination in countries at risk of vaccine expiry such as Cameroon, Sierra Leone, and South Sudan; and helped deliver accurate information on vaccines both online—through a digital campaign dubbed “It’s Up To Us” of which afropop star Yemi Alade is a global ambassador —and offline to sensitize communities on the importance and benefits of vaccination, with an increasing focus on young people, who make up most of Africa’s population.

In Sierra Leone, a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) known as Focus 1000, which is supported by the Saving Lives and Livelihoods initiative, is particularly effective when it comes to delivering behaviour change communication. It is an Africa CDC centre of excellence in risk communications and community engagement.

Dr. Mohammad Jalloh, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the organization notes that the secret to successful community engagement lies in their ability to work with trusted community leaders and institutions.

“Here in Sierra Leone, we are using a network of key influencers comprising of 10,000 traditional healers, 6,000 religious leaders, 4,000 market women, 500 youth leaders, and 80 media houses across the country. They have helped dispel the myths and untruths about the vaccines, while acting as vaccine ambassadors and champions,” he notes.

Dr. Donald Grant, a Medical Officer overseeing the operations of health facilities in Sierra Leone’s Kenema District adds that the Saving Lives and Livelihoods’ support for Focus 1000 came just in time.

“At a time when we were planning for a major COVID-19 vaccine drive in the district, we got financial support for logistics and for compensating the vaccination teams that were working tirelessly to ensure we met our targets. The support increased their morale and commitment to get the work done. And they were able to improve access to the vaccines by not only covering the urban populations but also the rural areas,” he says.

Importantly, the Saving Lives and Livelihoods initiative is also taking a long-view, looking beyond the short-term needs to address systemic challenges in the global health architecture, which were brought to the forefront by COVID-19. One of the goals of the partnership is to strengthen the Africa CDC’s capacity to fulfil its continental mandate. Since the partnership was launched, the Africa CDC has been upgraded from a specialized technical institution of the African Union to an autonomous public health agency reporting directly to AU Heads of State.

The pioneering partnership is also working to enable a regional vision for “made in Africa” vaccines and pharmaceutical products, by investing in the human capital required to drive the development of these products. In yet another show of leadership amid the pandemic, African leaders, through the African Union, have set an ambitious target of manufacturing 60 percent of Africa’s routinely used vaccines on the continent by 2040. For a continent that was forced to wait last in line for COVID-19 vaccines, this promises to be a game-changer moving the continent from vaccine dependency to vaccine independence.