Meet the heroes in Africa fighting back against this pandemic—and working to prevent the next one

January 22, 2022
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In Africa, the latest statistics on COVID-19 are discouraging. Just 6 percent—about 78 million—of the continent’s 1.3 billion people have been fully vaccinated. Worldwide, by comparison, 43 percent are fully vaccinated, and boosters are now widely available in many countries.

Without enough vaccines available in Africa, COVID-19 marches on infecting millions of people. Even assessing the true scale of the pandemic on the continent is difficult. A recent World Health Organization assessment estimated that only one in seven cases of COVID in Africa are being detected because of a limited amount of testing.

And while many Western and Asian countries are recovering economically from the pandemic and returning to some version of normalcy, most countries in Africa continue to struggle. Disruptions to schooling, health care, and livelihoods have sunk many families deeper into poverty, leaving them without enough food and basic services.

We should all be upset about this inequity. (I’ve written recently about this divide and the steps the world needs to take to get the virus under control.) It’s critical that more be done to get vaccines into the arms of the people at high risk for COVID, including the elderly and immunocompromised, who are living in low-income countries. And the recent detection of the Omicron variant serves as a reminder of how important increasing vaccination rates is to deter new mutations of the virus from emerging.

But even during this difficult time, I think it’s important to highlight the many Africans who are fighting back against this pandemic. They are stepping up to alleviate suffering, to combat misinformation, and to develop the tools needed to prevent future pandemics.

There are thousands of examples of heroic work being done in Africa during this pandemic. Here are three stories of organizations and individuals who are working to save lives and bring hope to their communities.

1. South Africa: The Truck

As COVID-19 swept across South Africa, one of the most pressing needs was access to public health information. People needed to know about the virus and how to stay safe. And as South Africa started rolling out COVID vaccines this year, health officials were also tasked with counteracting the spread of misinformation about the virus and vaccines. This was especially challenging in hard-to-reach communities in South Africa, where people don’t have access to television and other media. But UNICEF, in partnership with the national government, had an answer to this challenge: A truck. Not just any truck but a multi-media messenger on wheels. The truck has LED screens, which allows the truck’s organizer to broadcast videos telling local stories about COVID-19. They also organize presentations in communities to raise awareness of the virus, teach people how to prevent its spread, and promote COVID testing and vaccinations. The truck has logged more than 40,000 miles and delivered messages to hundreds of thousands of people.

2. Lesotho: Mamello Makhele

Mamello Makhele is a nurse-midwife working to improve health care for women in rural Lesotho, where there are high rates of maternal mortality. During the pandemic lockdowns many health facilities closed, leaving women living in these remote communities without access to family planning services. On foot and by donkey, Mamello travels high into the mountain to offer health care, deliver babies, and distribute contraceptives. Mamello has also worked nationwide to empower young women, encouraging them to take control of their health and prevent unwanted pregnancies. Thanks to her incredible work, many women are healthier today in Lesotho.

3. Tanzania: AfyadataEven as the world seeks to end the current COVID-19 pandemic, we need to also be thinking about how to prevent future pandemics. That’s just what a mobile app called Afyadata is helping health officials do in Tanzania. Designed by the Southern African Center for Infectious Disease Surveillance (SACIDS), Afyadata is a digital surveillance tool that allows health workers and even ordinary people to serve as disease detectives. Users can report unusual health occurrences not only in humans, but also animals. Monitoring animals is critical because most new pathogens start in animals before they spread and sicken humans. With the app, farmers can easily report any suspicious illness among their livestock to health officials, who can then quickly follow up with further investigation, if necessary. While this app is still being piloted in several districts of Tanzania and other parts of Africa, it has already been effective in the detection and identification of several small disease outbreaks. I look forward to learning more about Afyadata’s progress.

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