Strong Workforce Crucial for Resilient Health System in Africa
By Joyce Chimbi
Healthcare workers on the African continent are characterized by long working hours, often unsupported and underpaid. Africa’s inability to adequately train, equip and remunerate health workers has put the continent at risk of reaching a 6.1 million shortfall by 2030.
As the scale and magnitude of the impact of climate change on health continues to unfold, health experts at the Africa Health Agenda International Conference (AHAIC) 2023 emphasized that a strong health workforce is the cornerstone of every resilient health system.
“There is a huge shortage of health workers globally. The World Health Organization (WHO) is projecting a shortfall of 10 million by 2030, with a third of those in Africa. Failure to invest in the health workforce means weakened health systems, poor care and inability to meet today’s burdens of disease,” said Dr. Vanessa Kerry, co-founder and CEO of Seed Global Health.
“Many health workers are overworked, under-resourced or unprotected against disease and this has huge implications for the availability and quality of care, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa. Without well-trained, well-supported health workers, we face the reality that millions will continue to die of entirely preventable causes.”
With lessons from COVID-19 in hand, health experts reiterated that the issue of safeguarding the physical and psychological wellbeing of healthcare workers is necessary to enable them to function optimally. They also urged political leaders to fast-track investment in the health workforce.
“The lack of investment in the health workforce across developing economies is stunning: just 7 percent of global health aid over the past 10 years has been invested in the workforce itself. When funding does arrive, it is too often narrowly focused on specific disease verticals rather than taking a holistic approach,” Dr. Bonaventure Ahaisibwe, Managing Director Impact and Innovation at Seed Global Health.
This is despite healthcare workers providing essential services to vulnerable populations. If well supported and trained, health experts say they can help prevent and mitigate the negative effects of climate change and disease outbreaks.
In this regard, Africa’s top thought leaders, political leaders, researchers and innovators at AHAIC 2023 stressed that strong partnerships can help increase investments in skills development and robust infrastructure to train and retain health workers.
There was further emphasis that providing critical support to health care workers was the backbone of a healthy population, and in building a productive human capital that is in keeping with the demands of developing countries as they accelerate to meet UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
“Health is the most fundamental human right that an individual can have. It is only people who are healthy who can go to school and it is only people who are healthy that can work. When you think about building human capital for any country or community, you have to think about health as an enabler of labor, an enabler of education, and education for labor as well,” said Dr Githinji Gitahi, Group CEO, Amref Health Africa.
“In building human capital, health is at the center. What does it take to have a healthy population for social and economic development? Look at the agenda for the Africa we want. Even though health is central, there is a challenge for while we see health as a human right, health is actually considered a progressive right. This is to say that you can offer as much health as you can afford. But when you look at other rights, civil and political participation, they are absolute.”
In this regard, AHAIC 2023 provided a platform to explore solutions to protect healthcare workers, strengthen healthcare systems and move closer to achieving the goal of universal health coverage.
“There is no lack of will among leaders in Africa to improve their countries’ futures by building stronger health systems and investing in health workers, but many are lacking the necessary funding and global support to make these long-term, large scale and transformative investments,” Dr. Ahaisibwe expounded.
“At Seed Global Health, we recognize that one of the most glaring opportunities for investment lies at the end of the continuum of care: to see true advances in quality health care, we must invest in the physicians, nurses, and midwives who provide advanced care and compose the critical, but often overlooked referral system for a growing network of community health workers.”
Building strong health systems is critical in light of climate change which Dr Kerry said “has wide ranging impacts on human health, from increasing infectious disease outbreaks, to accelerating non-communicable disease burden, to rising burdens of pre-term birth and still births. Today, 23 percent of all global deaths are secondary to avoidable environmental causes.”
She further explained that these deaths are “slated to increase by a quarter million annually at our current rate; moving us farther away from our 2030 goals, not closer. Beyond direct health impacts, there are indirect ones on conflict, migration and the refugee crisis, with 216 million climate migrants expected by 2050.”
Health experts raised concerns with cholera and the re-emergence of malaria, and with the next disease outbreak which they said is likely to be viral. They urged the civil society, health professionals, researchers, innovators to sustain efforts towards finding combined solutions to the climate change and related health challenges facing communities today.