RESPONDING TO COVID

Health sector investments must be on top agenda at EAC summit

The council of ministers meeting in Arusha should prioritise discussions on innovative health financing models

In Summary

• Countries such as Rwanda with strong and well-coordinated public health systems responded quickly and effectively to the pandemic

• The pandemic emphasised the need and importance of investing in the health sector as a critical element in the development of the region.

President Uhuru Kenyatta participated in a virtual meeting of the East African Community (EAC) Heads of State and Government convened by President Paul Kagame of Rwanda on Tuesday, May 12, 2020
President Uhuru Kenyatta participated in a virtual meeting of the East African Community (EAC) Heads of State and Government convened by President Paul Kagame of Rwanda on Tuesday, May 12, 2020
Image: PSCU

The East African Community ordinary Heads of State meeting has been scheduled for February 27.

This will be preceded by the 40th Ordinary Meeting of the Council of Ministers from February 22-25 in Arusha, Tanzania. In a letter addressed to all permanent secretaries and ministers for EAC Affairs from Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan, EAC secretary-general Liberat Mfumukeko said apart from the appointment of his successor, infrastructure development for 2021-24 is top on the agenda for the Summit.

The chairperson of the Council of Ministers, Nshuti Manasseh, added that the EAC partner states are looking into ways  of dealing with the effects of Covid-19  on the region's economy.

This comes at a time when countries across the world are rolling out Covid-19 vaccine campaigns with renewed hope of returning to normalcy. While governments in the region have made efforts to strengthen various aspects of the health system to cope with the pandemic, the significant impact of the virus on the health systems is evident. Certainly, the impact varies from country to country. 

While substantive studies are yet to be conducted, it can be argued that countries that have strong health systems in the region endured the impact of the virus as compared to countries that have relatively weak health systems.

Countries such as Rwanda with strong and well-coordinated public health systems responded quickly and effectively to the pandemic, saving lives and preventing further spread. This reality calls for collective efforts both at national and regional levels to support countries with weak health infrastructure.

The EAC has heavily invested in regional infrastructure and trade towards the attainment of the region's vision 2050 of becoming a globally competitive upper-middle-income region with a high quality of life for its population based on the principles of inclusiveness and accountability.

However, the pandemic emphasised the need and importance of investing in the health sector as a critical element in the development of the region. There is overwhelming evidence that investments in strong health-care systems don’t just improve population health but also boost the economy.

A healthy population has a positive return on investment impacting disparate sectors of the economy ranging from agriculture and education to tourism and transportation. It was more evident during the pandemic, some of the EAC partner countries were overstretched with limited human resources, poor programming that saw poor/no prioritisation of other essential health services, including sexual reproductive health.

World Health Organization reports that investment in healthcare triples dividends for health, economic growth, and gender equality. Therefore, this moment of building back from the crisis presents an opportunity for EAC stewards to have a deeper evaluation of health systems in the region, illuminating on opportunities and challenges such as the scarcity of sustainable health financing.

The council of ministers meeting in Arusha should prioritise discussions on innovative health financing models that can be leveraged to marshal domestic resources to bridge the gap and meet the priority healthcare needs of their populations. This will be in line with the Abuja Declaration of 2001 that provided a rallying call for governments in Africa to allocate 15 per cent of public expenditure to the health sector, and build strong and resilient healthcare systems.

Fatinato Dollarman is a reproductive health advocate at Centre for the Study of Adolescence