Minister Lia Tadesse is an obstetrician and gynecologist with extensive leadership experience in healthcare, academia, hospital management, and grant-funded programs. Prior to her appointment as Minister of Health of Ethiopia on 12 March 2020—just one day before the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Ethiopia—Minister Tadesse served as State Minister of Health from 2018 to 2020, leading Ethiopia’s national health programs under the Health Sector Transformation Strategy. From 2015 to 2018, she served as Program Director of the Center for International Reproductive Health Training at the University of Michigan, and from 2014 to 2015, she was Project Director of the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Maternal and Child Survival Program in Ethiopia. We spoke with Minister Tadesse for our “Spotlight a COVID-19 Heroine” series about what it was like stepping into her role as Minister of Health at such a uniquely challenging moment, how she has led her country’s COVID-19 response, and how her commitment to improving women’s health has helped shape her own career and leadership journey.
Dr. Matshidiso Moeti has had a long and distinguished career in public health and is currently serving her second term as the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for Africa. Breaking new ground as the first woman to ever hold this position, Dr. Moeti led the WHO’s response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa during her first term in the position. Prior to joining the WHO, Dr. Moeti worked on curbing the HIV/AIDS epidemic, first as the Head of the HIV/AIDS Unit in the Ministry of Health of Botswana, her home country, then with the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) as Team Leader of the Africa and Middle East Desk in Geneva, then as head of the WHO Regional Office for Africa’s HIV/AIDS program. Most recently, Dr. Moeti has been working throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to connect leaders across the African continent and develop a coordinated response. Dr. Moeti’s COVID-19 response efforts have clearly made an impression on her staff and colleagues. Out of all the nominations we received during our “Spotlight a COVID-19 Heroine” campaign, more than one third were for Dr. Moeti. The nominations came from a total of 25 different countries across Africa. This is, by far, the largest number of nominations received for one nominee and from the widest geographic scope, reflecting the profound impact Dr. Moeti has had on the continent as a whole in her role as WHO Regional Director.
Minister Dora Siliya was first elected as a Member of Parliament in Zambia in 2006, representing the Petauke Central constituency. Since then, she has held several ministerial roles, including Minister of Energy and Water Development, Minister of Agriculture, and Minister of Transport and Communication. In 2018, Minister Siliya was appointed as Minister of Information and subsequently named Chief Government Spokesperson by President Edgar Chagwa Lungu. Prior to becoming an MP, Madam Siliya worked at ZNBC, the Zambian national television and radio station, rising to the role of Television Controller before pursuing a career in public service and politics. She has drawn on her broadcasting and media experience to help communicate effectively with the Zambian public during the COVID-19 pandemic, and has also spoken publicly about her own experience of contracting the virus. We spoke with Minister Siliya about her approach to communicating effectively during the pandemic, the need to combat misinformation, and the impact the pandemic has had on women in Zambia.
As a Curriculum Associate at the Rising Academy Network (Rising Academies), an innovative network of schools in West Africa, Elsiemae Melanie Buckle has worked tirelessly during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that students in Sierra Leone continue to have access to education despite the closure of schools due to lockdown measures. Working closely with the Teaching Service Commission in the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education of Sierra Leone on the planning and delivery of the country's national distance learning response, Melanie personally recorded hundreds of hours of audio instruction and educational content to be broadcast over the radio, helping to enable more children across Sierra Leone to continue their education through distance learning. The success of Melanie’s work with the Teaching Service Commission contributed to the creation of Rising Academies’ Rising On Air distance learning solution, an initiative to provide open-source radio scripts, making them available online for free. Since its implementation, Rising On Air lessons have been adapted for use in over 25 countries in Africa and Asia and have reached more than 10 million students.
Julie Mariama Sesay is the Freetown Programme Manager at AdvocAid, an organization that provides legal aid and support to detained and incarcerated women and girls in Sierra Leone. Working with some of Sierra Leone’s most vulnerable populations, she fights to make sure that no one is overlooked, and that they are offered opportunities to improve their lives when they are released. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Julie has been unafraid to put her own health at risk in order to serve others. She has engaged with police to secure the release of women who were detained for breaking lockdown orders to fetch clean water for their families, organized a life-saving donation of medical supplies to a correctional center where prisoners were diagnosed with COVID-19, and more.
Through her role as Technical Advisor to the Statistician-General at the National Bureau of Statistics in Nigeria, Lola Talabi-Oni recognized early on during the COVID-19 pandemic that aggregating data across government organizations could help to dramatically improve public understanding of the virus and aid ongoing response efforts. Working with the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, hosted by the United Nations Foundation (UN Foundation), the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), and 14 other partners, Lola built and launched Nigeria’s National Coronavirus Geospatial Data Hub. The Hub uses cutting-edge data visualizations to improve accessibility to real-time COVID-19 information for government agencies and the general public. A central resource for data related to COVID-19 and response efforts, the National Coronavirus Geospatial Data Hub has been an indispensable tool in Nigeria’s fight against the virus.
Dr. Winnie Kitetu is the Clinical Psychologist in Residence at the Aga Khan Hospital, Mombasa, Kenya. Dr. Kitetu began her career as a pharmacist, and as her interest in mental health developed, she returned to university to study Clinical Psychology. The COVID-19 pandemic and measures imposed to curb the spread of the disease have had a significant impact on mental health, prompted by bereavement, loneliness, substance abuse, and domestic violence etc. Dr. Kitetu is using her expertise to support women and families during the pandemic with remote counseling via phone or video, providing guidance on dealing with bereavement, parenting through the pandemic, and keeping loneliness at bay during lockdown orders.
Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka is a leading conservationist and scientist working to protect wildlife species, including the endangered mountain gorillas of East Africa. She is the Founder and CEO of Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), a non-profit organization that promotes conservation by improving the health and quality of life of people living near protected areas of Africa, so that they can peacefully coexist with the wildlife. Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka is also an expert in zoonotic diseases—infectious diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans, and vice-versa. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, caused by a novel coronavirus thought to have originated in bats, global awareness about zoonotic diseases has increased, thanks in part to the efforts of Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka and others who have been working to educate the public about how such diseases spread.
Khadijah Abdul-Samed is a communication practitioner with nearly ten years’ experience in broadcasting, advocacy, and research. Khadjiah currently works as the Communication & Gender Officer at the Savannah Women Integrated Development Agency (SWIDA), an organization working to empower communities and individuals in Northern Ghana through socio-economic opportunities, and she is also the Project Lead for SWIDA’s Women-LEAD development project. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Khadijah was central to her organization’s development of an innovative media sensitization initiative that featured children as the main communicators on issues surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic to communities across Northern Ghana.