HE Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: statement at the US-Africa Leaders Summit

Session: “Partnering for Sustainable Health Cooperation”

13 December 2022


We come together following a hard period of setbacks, but also great optimism about what can be achieved on the African continent.

I speak to you today as a former President with lived experience and lessons from managing the West African Ebola outbreak of 2014-2016 and as former Co-Chair of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response. The Independent Panel made a series of recommendations to transform the global system to stop outbreaks from becoming pandemics of such devastation as COVID-19.

First, I’d like to speak about lessons from Ebola.

Ebola taught us that bringing a deadly virus under control is a matter for all of government and all of society. When Liberia was struck, I brought cabinet together. We worked across Ministries. And vitally, we worked with communities – with business, and religious leaders, with community leaders, and leaders of counties and districts. I even wrote a letter to the world. Leadership happened at every level.  Partnerships were also key, including of course with the United States, the World Health Organization, MSF and many others. Together, we beat Ebola.

A lesson was the importance of investment in strong health systems. This includes investment in people- primary care doctors, nurses, researchers, and laboratory technicians. I believe professional community health workers – properly trained, equipped, supervised and paid – are best prepared to provide essential health services in their communities – the people health systems are meant to serve.

Another lesson was regional solidarity and the importance of cross-border cooperation.

We took those lessons to the COVID-19 fight. I remember the African continent was the first to join forces. On February 22 2020, health ministers of the African Union came together in an emergency meeting, and resolved to work together to share information and coordinate control measures. The Africa CDC, just three years into its mandate, worked quickly to support countries – faced with a new virus of which we knew very little.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed African people to substantial health, economic and social harm.  No continent was spared. Even the wealthiest countries in the global north, deemed the most prepared, suffered gravely.

But the pandemic also showed clearly that, more than ever, the African continent must and can be more self-sufficient.  The inequitable response to COVID-19 put us last in the queue for vaccines, treatments and diagnostic tests. The pandemic exposed inequities in access to critical medical products like vaccines and tests, in access to capacity building, in access to health care services, and exposed our communities to misinformation.

To begin to address inequities, the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response recommended a new system to research, trial, manufacture and distribute tools like vaccines, treatments, and tests. They should be made much closer to the places that require them, in Africa and around the world. Africa’s plan to manufacture and produce the up to 60 per cent of vaccines intended for the continent by 2040 will need support from the US and other countries to reach these targets. This means technology, innovation, investing in African researchers, African laboratories, African manufacturing and distribution, and also in community mobilization, health information and demand.  We need to be ready to rapidly respond to outbreaks at their source, including with products that suit the reality of African countries’ climate and geography.

The Independent Panel also recommended a sustained fund for pandemic preparedness and response be established.  A Pandemic Fund now exists, and will soon put out a first call for proposals. The United States has shown great leadership to help make this happen. Rwanda’s Minister of Health is a co-chair of this Fund. The African Development Bank is an implementing entity.  But we need this fund to grow – it now has about one tenth of the $10.5 billion needed annually. The Panel recommended a financing model whereby all countries pay what they can, and the countries requiring the most support can rely on getting it. I encourage African countries to be involved in this Fund – to advocate for the funds required – to make proposals for funding – and to invest nationally in pandemic preparedness and response.

On the health workforce, Dr. Ahmed of the Africa CDC shared the vision of Africa’s New Public Health Order. The New Public Health Order personifies the leadership and commitment we need to meet health workforce needs – including doctors, nurses, midwives, and the 2 million community health workers that the AU has set as a target. I see momentum already. In support of this strategy, earlier this year, I launched the Africa Frontline First initiative, and a Catalytic Fund hosted by the Global Fund, which has mobilized nearly $100 million dollars to strengthen the community health workforce in Africa.

In Geneva, there are processes underway to amend the International Health Regulations, and to negotiate a new pandemic accord. Here are opportunities to address issues of equity, financing and health systems. I encourage all African states to fulsomely take part in these processes, which will define the way the world prevents, prepares for responds to pandemic threats.

Finally, at the United Nations General Assembly in New York – there will be a high-level meeting for pandemic prevention, preparedness and response no later than the end of September 2023. South Africa’s leadership was central to making this happen.

The Independent Panel has recommended that to truly transform the international system for pandemic preparedness and response, we require a global health threats council to bring the system together. This would be comprised of heads of state, inclusive and representative of all countries. The political declaration that will result from the high-level meeting is an opportunity to call for such a threats council. 

I stress again – and all of us here learned in this pandemic – that pandemic threats must be tackled as whole-of-government, and whole-of-society issues.  It requires accountability and action from the highest levels of political leadership. The Ebola outbreak could not have been ended without Presidential leadership. I urge you to take this same approach to pandemic threats, and harness what we have learned from the COVID pandemic to ensure the continent has the resilient health workforce and health systems that it needs to continue responding to this pandemic while also preparing for the next.

The future of the African continent, and of the entire world, is in your hands. Let us safeguard our health, and secure a bright future.

HE Ellen Johnson Sirleaf speaks to the US-Africa Leaders Summit, 13 December 2022.
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