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Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: African governments must build confidence in COVID-19 vaccines

Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf recently outlined the steps that governments can take to ensure equitable and accessible COVID-19 vaccine distribution across the African continent. Speaking recently at a webinar alongside other senior African leaders hosted by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and the Harvard Ministerial Leadership Program, Madam Sirleaf said it was vital for nations to educate and reassure the public about the vaccines. 

During the live discussion, Madam Sirleaf emphasized governments’ responsibility to ensure an organized and coordinated approach. She stressed that successful vaccine deployment relied on heads of state to coordinate ministerial efforts, reassure citizens, and dispel public fear:

“In all of this, people’s is a major factor. Unless people know of the vaccine, know of its results, its processes—difficulty can even when there’s availability, because they don’t understand…If they don’t have the right information and assurance, that also could undermine the effectiveness of the delivery system.”

On the issue of equity, Madam Sirleaf noted that global and national discrepancies in vaccine distribution were inevitable, and mentioned that nations may fail to adhere to agreed targeting regimes which prioritize the vaccination of frontline workers, the elderly, and the most vulnerable. She stressed that governments must guarantee consistent monitoring and reporting of vaccine distribution. 

Madam Sirleaf observed that national governments must also prepare, strengthen, and monitor local government authorities to ensure that vaccines are available to rural communities with underdeveloped infrastructure. 

Stressing the need for transparency at the executive level, Madam Sirleaf noted that national leaders must communicate clearly to frontline workers and local leaders about the progress of vaccine delivery, and any areas requiring improvement. Clarity and due recognition, she said, were key:

“At the end of the day, delivery to a poor rural family, in an area that has no infrastructure, depends on the passion of that community health worker who is so committed because you’ve given them the incentive—not only of the supplies and the money—but the recognition of the role they play.”

Dr. Vera Songwe, Amujae Coach and Executive Secretary of UNECA, delivered pre-recorded remarks. She stressed the need to seek alternative ways of ensuring that the 70% target for herd immunity from the COVID-19 virus is met, outside of the three-track process for financing vaccines in Africa: the COVAX program, the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT), and African governments themselves through letters of credit. COVAX aims to provide up to 600 million vaccine doses to African countries by the end of 2021, which would allow for the vaccination of 20% of the African population, while AVATT has secured the continent a further 270 million vaccines

Dr. Songwe added that reopening Africa’s economythrough the recapitalization of banks at a national and regional levelmust be a priority to ensure that the continent’s economies can build back safely. She said:

“This is an investment into the future…this is an investment that we believe has to be done today.”

As the discussion drew to a close, Madam Sirleaf emphasized that economic recovery is only possible through stimulation of the private sector. Noting that the pandemic necessitated the public sector’s integration into the healthcare system, she said countries must now turn their attention towards private industry to ensure that operational investment continues and additional investments are facilitated. She also noted that regional cooperation and the development of national private-sector systems must be prioritized to help countries rebuild as vaccine rollouts continue.

Pre-recorded remarks were also made by Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, and Dr. Muhammad Pate, Global Director of Health, Nutrition, and Population at the World Bank. 

Fellow panelists included Awa Marie Coll-Seck, Minister of State to the President of Senegal and former Minister of Health and Social Action of Senegal, and Cristina Duarte, the United Nations Special Adviser on Africa.

You can listen to the full webinar here. Madam Sirleaf speaks at 17:45, 41:02, and 51:37.

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