When the Covid-19 pandemic broke out at the end of 2019, many countries were caught off-guard as the virus went on rampage worldwide in the early months of 2020. Governments and international bodies like World Health Organisation (WHO) went into emergency overdrive to avert the impact of the pandemic which led to preventive restrictions to stop the spread.
Countries in the region including Rwanda, struggled to cope with the fast spread of the virus, imposing various lockdowns and other measures which dealt a blow to economies. The outbreak revealed the grim inadequcies in respinding to emergencies especially in national and regional systems.
According to the WHO Africa Regional Office, though the Region has made tremendous progress guided by various global, regional and country conventions and frameworks in dealing with emergencies, serious gaps still remain in how countries respond.
With more than 100 health emergencies occurring in the African Region, including disease outbreaks of cholera, yellow fever, meningitis, measles and Ebola, countries need to be more prepared to respond and effectively control such outbreaks in future.
It is against this background that WHO Africa Regional Office (AFRO) launched three flagship initiatives to strengthen country capacity to prepare for, detect and respond to health emergencies.
According to Dr. Brian Chirombo, the WHO Head of Mission and Country Representative to Rwanda, the initiative which kicked off on Monday is aimed at strengthening national capacities for pandemic preparedness and response.
Dr. Chirombo pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic proved that there is a need to reinforce robust country capacity to prevent, prepare for, detect and respond to public health emergencies of international concern to avoid a similar scenario.
“With the Covid-19 pandemic, it became very clear to us that we need to do better. A lot of reviews have been done to see how well did we respond globally? How did WHO play its part in terms of coordinating emergency response?”
“Based on that, WHO has now come up with three flagship programs which are aimed at strengthening the capacity of countries. One of the things that came out very clearly, I remember is when we went into lockdown. It was not possible to bring in experts from outside,” Dr. Chirombo said.
According to the WHO Country Rep, the initial parts of an emergency response require strong experts in the country to intervene from the onset and part of the flagship programme is to make sure that that all the countries have experts with the capacity to be able to detect a public health event quickly.
“Secondly, even before the detecting, countries need to be prepared for anything that comes in, then finally, to be able to respond and that response, obviously covers different areas, including having the people, the systems and the means to respond,” Dr. Chilombo said.
According to the WHO AFRO, the three flagship initiatives will initially be implemented in a few select countries, and later be scaled up regionally. Rwanda was selected to participate in all three flagship initiatives, which is why a high level WHO AFRO mission is in the country on a scoping mission for this initiative, running from September 19 to 23.
The WHO Team is working with Ministry of Health and other ministries and key institutions involved in emergency response, to identify the strengths, gaps, and opportunities to leverage to accelerate emergency response as part of the flagship initiative.
Preventing future emergencies
According to Dr. Tharcisse Mpunga, the state minister at the Ministry of Health in charge of Primary Health Care, the Covid-19 pandemic revealed major gaps when it comes to responding to emergencies that affect people or livestock.
“The pandemic showed us that we had major inadequacies in dealing with emergencies, whether it is in terms of staff or logistics. You recall we had to mobilise people to join the taskforce, from police officers to youth volunteers,”
“We did not have the capacity in terms of the facilities and equipment we needed, and they were not enough where they were coming from. We had no capacity to even manufacture masks or even test,” Dr. Mpunga said.
These inadequacies prompted WHO to go back to the drawing board to see how best countries can be prepared to respond to similar emergencies in future.
“The flagship initiative is aimed at ensuring that we have the people with proper training, the resources needed and the readiness to counter such emergences when they happen and WHO is looking to walk with Rwanda through this journey,” Dr. Mpunga added.
As part of the initiative, the WHO mission is engaging with Ministers and other senior government officials for Health and other sectors, government implementing institutions with the aim of ensuring that future emergencies are prevented or controlled in time.
The flagship projects will collectively improve the capacity of Member States to prepare, detect and respond to public health emergencies, building upon existing infrastructure to put in place a well-organized partner support system that augments national capacity when needed, incorporating lessons learned from COVID-19, Ebola and other health emergencies.
The initiative dubbed the Promoting Resilience of Systems for Emergencies (PROSE) which is being implemented in select countries, will be scaled up regionally over five years, to ensure that each of the 47 countries in the Region are better equipped to plan for health emergencies and humanitarian crises.