By Ajong Mbapndah L
As Africa grapples with adequate measures to cushion the ravages of COVID-19, Dr Ammenah Gurib-Fakim says it is time for the continent to take ownership and leadership in solving its own problems.
Speaking in a skype interview from Port Louis, the Biodiversity Scientist who served as the first Woman and 6th President of Mauritius, says it is time that Africa digs deep in its pockets, bring out all the philanthropists , business community, governments , and all the full resources available to power the continent forward.
“Africa has resources, and should be able to change the narrative, work with the international community but more importantly should start investing in ourselves. Up until we start doing this, we will always be in the narrative of waiting for other people to come and help us,” says Dr Ameenah Fakim as she urges the continent to invest in institutions, and training human capital.
Addressing concerns about testing vaccines in Africa, Dr Ameenah Gurib Fakim says using Africans as guinea pigs should be out of the question.
“Whenever a trial is done on the continent it must be done in the right way, with the consent of the person, we do not talk about “guinea pigs” but volunteers, so the person who is participating in the clinical trial must have given his/her consent,” she said.
PAV: Madam President Good afternoon, and thanks for accepting to grant this interview.
Dr Ameenah Fakim: Good afternoon and you are welcome.
PAV: Let us start with the situation in your home country. How is Mauritius fairing with regards to the coronavirus pandemic?
Dr Ameenah Fakim: We have been in lockdown for the past two weeks, and as of today we are counting over two hundred and fifty (250) infected cases and seven (7) deaths.
PAV: There are concerns about the capabilities of healthcare infrastructures across Africa to handle the pandemic, how equipped, and prepared are health facilities in Mauritius?
Dr Ameenah Fakim: In Mauritius ever since we got independence, we have systematically invested in the health sector; the health service is free in Mauritius. We have also invested in the past fifty-plus years on social security nets. This has been one of the pillars in Mauritius, and right now I am very pleased that our founding fathers of this country had this vision to set up a social security net especially the wealth gap.
We are going to be stretched a bit. We keep getting a lot of infections, and what we are encouraging people to do is to stay home so that the pressure does not build on the health services in this country. Having said this, I am concerned about what is going to happen in the African continent because unfortunately, the infrastructure is going to be pushed a great deal but more importantly, if we look at the advice of the WHO they are talking about social distancing, washing hands properly, and in many places, unfortunately, these are still luxuries.
Many people are leaving in cramped conditions in one room, social distancing is out of the question, access to water is an issue, social security net in many of the fragile states is out of the question, and even food is an issue. We talk about people staying home, those operating in the informal sector they are going to be challenged because if they do not work, they do not eat. So unfortunately, in many of these places, the concerns are there that the COVID may not get them, but hunger will.
PAV: Let us talk a little more about the pandemic, what should Africa brace itself for, just how bad could this be and what impact do you see socially, politically and economically for the continent?
Dr Ameenah Fakim: The interesting thing about what is happening in Europe, and what we are observing in many parts of West Africa is that it has not hit so badly so far. I am not going to be controversial here, but could this be because Africa has been hit by so many of these pandemics they have developed somehow a little bit of resistance but already we are seeing that South Africa has enacted all the measures of social distancing, and all that so they are taking it very seriously. Whether we get the true picture of what is going on in Africa depends on the capacity to test. Now, do they have the means to do all the testing? That is the issue
We are just praying that the right measures will be taken on board in the African countries so that more importantly people stay away from those who are infected, and those who are infected have their tests, and have the appropriate care that they need.
In terms of political impact, one thing we have to address is what the COVID has done which has revealed the state of our institutions in the continent. When we talk about the state of our institutions, first is the healthcare system which we find will not be able to cope that much. The second issue which I have always been talking about is the exodus of our competence from the continent, and right now we need all the capacity we can have to be able to handle this and you know the ratio of Doctors to population is very weak on the continent. So, I fear that we may not have the appropriate human capacity to be able to tackle this pandemic. In terms of the pressure politically, time will tell but I think many governments will be under a lot of pressure to be able to address this crisis which the health sector is facing.
PAV: Leaders like Mohamadou Issoufou of Niger say the world needs to consider a Marshal Plan for Africa to help cushion the impact of the pandemic, is this something that you subscribe to?
Ameenah Fakim: I have signed a letter which we sent to the G20 in terms of the measures. We have a plea that people come together, governments come together, institutions come together to capitalise the institutions to help provide the social security net, provide medication all these. These are all our wishes that we will like to put to governments, and institutions. When we talk about the Marshal plan that was of course in 1948, it was done for a particular purpose, for reconstruction immediately after World War II. Right now we are talking about a global pandemic and this calls for countries to come together.
The scenario now is not the same as it was then. My narrative all the time has been African countries have got fifty plus years of post-independence history. It is time that we look at the continent, start digging in our pockets, bringing all the philanthropists, business communities, government because Africa is a very rich continent.
Africa has resources and should be able to change the narratives, work with the international community but more importantly should start investing in ourselves. Up until we start doing this, we will always be in the narrative of waiting for other people to come and help us. The international community has been going a great job of helping us. Beyond the solidarity, we need to start looking at ourselves and I mean this very seriously beyond the health crisis, we have a young population and we need to start investing in them.
We need to start investing in our institutions, training our human capital is our responsibility, keeping the population is our responsibility, so let us all come together to use our resources for the betterment of our institutions, and, of course, our human capital.
PAV: The African Development Bank is setting aside big sums to help African countries fight the pandemic. Considering the poor track records of managing resources across the African continent, is there a message you have for African leaders on how to manage these resources?
Dr Ameenah Fakim: If you look at a country like Rwanda, Paul Kagame after the genocide turned things around. This country does not have many resources, but I think it is leadership. We need to start looking at our leadership as I said invest in our institutions because this is something that will go beyond the lifetime of the leader. We need to start building our institutions, and it comes with investment, with investment in human capital, and in our people and institutions. We need to start building, it should have started yesterday, as we are here with COVID-19, we can start immediately after the pandemic is over but go and invest in our institutions.
Next thing I will also like to point out is that Africa has just signed up to the Continental Free Trade Agreement, there is nothing to prevent West or East Africa trading together, bringing the necessary goods and services and encouraging the movement of people so that we can promote brain circulation so that we can promote human capital, trade, goods and services across the continent. So, this is something we need to start looking at very seriously.
PAV: There has been a lot of controversy in recent times about the vaccine and testing that are needed in Africa coming from two French doctors who said Africa should be the centre for some of these testing. Being a scientist and a former leader, do you think Africans should be concerned about participating in trial runs for any potential vaccines?
Dr Ameenah Fakim: Clinical trial is an inevitable step in drug development and vaccine development. Now, do we need to incorporate Africans in clinical trials? Yes, we need to incorporate Africans. We need to do it in the right way, the same way we do it in the United States, Europe, Asia, and other areas. We need more Africans in these clinical trials. The reason why we need more Africans in these clinical trials is that genetics matter. Whenever a drug is developed in the North it is tested with Caucasians, in Asians, unfortunately, we do not see many Africans being part of the clinical trial panel. Genetics matter because whatever dosage is being developed for a Caucasia or Asian person may not be the right dosage.
Whenever a trial is done on the continent it must be done in the right way, with the consent of the person, we do not talk about “guinea pigs” but volunteers, so the person who is participating in the clinical trial must have given his/her consent. Coming back to the issue on whether we should use Africans as “guinea pigs”, certainly not. Everything must be done appropriately but we need more Africans in these clinical trials so that the dosage and the drug whenever we are prescribing to African genotype it makes a big difference to his or her health.
PAV : Let us talk about leadership from former Presidents like you, former Prime Ministers, across the continent, what role do you think they can play in addressing such a pandemic and generally trying to make sure that Africa stays on the right path to progress?
Dr Ameenah Fakim: I think past leaders have the responsibility of mentoring and this is what I have given myself the task of mentoring girls in science because of my background. We need to educate our girls and to bring them there we need to be a role model for the girl who is growing up in a village in Africa to know that it is possible to reach a certain position through hard work. In the current pandemic, we have the responsibility of advocating, speaking to governments, addressing, and seeing how we can provide best practices. I feel that at this moment in time, we need to be able to know what are the best practices and how do we also speak to the people so that they can adopt best practices so that we can get this pandemic behind us.
Having said this, getting the pandemic behind us is short term, what we have to ensure is that the conversation and the communication still go on because a second or third wave is not impossible as it is already happening in some countries as we have seen in China, Singapore. We have to make sure that when we address this issue on the continent, the conversation remains alive so that we do not get this issue again and again, and I can assure you that we have not seen the last of the COVID. We have not seen the last of any pandemic because climate change will be the next pandemic we have to settle.
PAV: Let us end this interview with an opportunity again for you to make a direct statement to everyday hardworking Africans on safety ad survival measures. How can they walk their way around this troubling time and with all the wave of panic across the continent can you also give a positive message on the way forward?
Dr Ameenah Fakim: I think what we have to do in this incident is to communicate, communicate to the people, encourage governments to do tests, tests and more tests. Hopefully, with the necessary financial measures that are been put in place, we will be able to provide the safety nets for those who are desperately in need for it. It also calls for a time of solidarity and I know that at the level of the African Union, there is an effort to get people to contribute to a fund so that they can then use that to help those people who are in desperate need. Here I have a special thought to those children because I am also working with Save the Children in Africa and I know that they have huge needs as well.
PAV: Madam President thank you so much for talking to Pan African Visions
Dr Ameenah Fakim: Thank you for having me. It has been a pleasure and as I said let us work towards getting rid of this COVID virus fast so we can start building ourselves again.
*Interview conducted earlier this month for Pan African Visions Magazine. To get Copies contact email@example.com, and firstname.lastname@example.org