Investing in Africa’s health-care & STEM workers can help fight next pandemic

As industrialized economies start to see Covid-19 cases decline, the threat the coronavirus poses to much of Africa will soon become front and center. This is certainly not the first time a disease or virus has drawn attention to the vulnerabilities of health systems in the global south.

However, the truly worldwide nature of the Covid-19 pandemic offers an opportunity to directly compare response capacities across all countries, and makes a strong case for massive investments in critical segments of human capital across Africa.

As an underprepared world grapples with the crisis, one thing is clear: A global pandemic requires a global response. Scientists in Geneva and Atlanta must work seamlessly with health officials in Gaborone and Addis Ababa, and they all need highly skilled experts running their responses.

For this to happen, investments in heath and STEM training must transcend borders. Investing in human capital in African countries would increase local capacity to respond to crises and add to the worldwide talent pool, which would benefit all nations.

Africa’s overstretched health-care systems demonstrate the clear need for more STEM and health-care graduates and workers. The continent, for example, carries nearly a quarter of global disease burden, yet is home to only about 3% of the world’s health-care workers. In a country like Zambia, where there is one doctor for every 10,000 people, even a modest uptick in the number of domestically trained physicians would be a significant improvement.

Similarly, the Africa CDC estimates that the continent will need 15 million test kits for Covid-19 in the next three months alone, yet there are not enough trained laboratory personnel to process that many tests. Investing in African STEM and heath-care education would enhance regional capacity to respond to the current crisis and better prepare the region and the world for future pandemics.

Of course, in the African context, human capital is one input in a system with many other important variables. Some African countries have fewer intensive-care beds than you’d find in one Manhattan hospital. Once a Covid-19 vaccine is developed, distributing it might be hindered by problems with access to power and limits to cold supply chain logistics. However, a strong health-care and STEM workforce is an insurance policy without which all other investments are at risk. And it is well within the ability of African countries to achieve.

Read also: More stories on heroes of covid-19

Industrialized countries, which already draw on global STEM talent to staff their health system, would also benefit from such an expanded investment. Data show that 54% of STEM degrees issued at a master’s-degree level in the U.S. are to foreign-born students. Approximately 20% of health-care workers in the U.S. are foreign-born, and some 12% of those are from African countries.

These professionals are so critical that earlier in the pandemic, Boston-area hospitals called on the State Department to resume processing visas for international health-care workers. Simply put, the U.S. depends on a steady stream of health and STEM talent from low-income countries. Directing resources to science and technology studies in African countries — effectively expanding quality domestic education there — would be a welcome complement to this mobility to the U.S. and elsewhere.

While policymakers in low-income countries, understandably, see this global mobility as “brain drain,” Covid-19 has been a strong reminder that science is borderless, and that the world needs more “brain circulation,” not less. In efforts to develop a vaccine, U.S. companies are working in partnership with German firms, and Indian researchers are partnering with British researchers. In testing, a British company is producing a $1 at-home Covid-19 test in Dakar, Senegal, in partnership with a Senegalese subsidiary of a French research institute.

This initiative will produce up to 4 million tests a year in Dakar. Increasing the number of globally trained and connected Africans in STEM and health would encourage similar cross-border collaborations, dramatically improving the capacity of African countries and bringing diversity to the global response.

More broadly, investments in STEM human capital throughout Africa can build the continent’s manufacturing sector while expanding its capacity to contribute to resilience in global supply chains. With the right industrial engineers, biotech investors and material scientists in place, there can be a future where African countries supply critical health products such as personal protective equipment and ventilators to the region and the world.

This is an appeal to bilateral and multilateral donors, philanthropists, impact investors and corporations to be intentional about human capital, which requires collaborating and unlocking private capital at the intersection of the silos of education, finance and health, and possibly financial inclusion and livelihoods.

Innovations on pay-for-success models could, for example, incentivize a Johns Hopkins University graduate from Zambia to return to Lusaka, while respecting her autonomy and avoiding paternalism. Success is when Zambia-focused donor funds don’t have to choose between training 500 community health workers and this one expert out of Johns Hopkins. Countries need both.

There is no shortage of places where resources should be directed. Former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has the mandate as the goodwill ambassador for the World Health Organization on health workforce issues. Across the African continent, STEM and health-care students are typically at the very top of their cohort, and the universities that train them, including Ghana’s Ashesi University and Ivory Coast’s International University of Grand-Bassam, are constrained by financing.

The African Academy of Sciences could use more resources. So too could many global universities keen to enroll qualified African STEM students, but struggling with the dilemma of balancing their needs for revenue with the imperative of diversity. (This last challenge is the reason I founded 8B Education Investments, a financial technology company specialized in financing, connecting and mentoring African students in leading global universities.)

The Covid-19 pandemic can be the watershed moment for how collaboration among public and private stakeholders can put countries on track to recovery. In a crisis where one country’s preparedness and response directly affect health outcomes in another, we must be concerned with each other’s health-care systems. Investing in health-care and STEM human capital in Africa would not only directly benefit countries on the continent, but also add to the global capacity to fight the next pandemic. 

Source: Lydiah Kemunto Bosire

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