Does Chinese investment strengthen African health systems?


On 11th January, the China-aided headquarters building project (Phase I) of the African Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) was officially inaugurated in the presence of H.E. Mr. Qin Gang, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China and H.E. Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the African Union Commission. The Africa CDC, a specialised technical institution of the African Union (AU) that aims to strengthen the capacity and capability of Africa’s public health institutions, has benefitted tremendously from the support of China. With the mandate to coordinate disease prevention, surveillance and control in the continent in partnership with the national public health institutes and health ministries of member-states – a daunting task, China has demonstrated unflinching dedication to the cause.

At the 2018 Beijing Summit and the 7th Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), the Chinese government made commitments to support the building of Africa CDC’s headquarters – a promise China has fulfilled. While this achievement is certainly a feather in the cap of the Chinese Government, this is just one of the numerous investments China has dedicated to strengthening public health systems across countries on the continent. In fact, through thick and thin, China has demonstrated unparalleled dedication to strengthen healthcare systems in Africa.

To mention a few, at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic had triggered the largest global economic crisis in more than a century, and wealthy nations were hoarding vaccines – when only 3 percent of Africa’s total population was fully vaccinated against COVID-19 compared to 53 percent in the United States and 57 percent accomplished by the European Union  – China, on the other hand, was exemplary as the Asian country offered vital support to African countries, providing vaccines and protective equipment, sending Chinese healthcare professionals to augment efforts of local health workers, and building infrastructure to strengthen Africa’s public health systems – a timely effort that saved lives and livelihoods in Africa.

For example, the China-aided fully-automated and refrigerated vaccine storage complex with a capacity of up to 150 million doses of vaccine annually, which was put into use in September 2022 in Egypt is a major boost for the country and the entire vaccine supply chain of Africa – another milestone in the China-Africa public health cooperation that dates back to early 1963 when China sent its first overseas medical team (24-member team) to Algeria. This was a difficult period in the public health history of Algeria as foreign doctors domiciled in the newly independent Algeria – Algeria gained independence in 1962 – left en masse, leaving behind a severe shortage of doctors and medicine. China was the first country to send a medical team to Algeria, demonstrating quick response and prioritising the urgent needs of the north African country, a typical characteristic of China, which is consistent in the history of the Africa-China public health cooperation.

Since 1963, more than 22,000 Chinese health professionals have been sent to Africa to support local programmes which have benefitted about 220 million patients on the continent. While typically, China has consistently responded to the public health needs of African countries, including funding more than 130 hospitals and clinics between 2000 and 2020, contributing considerably to efforts dedicated to closing the health sector’s infrastructure gap, it is worth knowing that China’s contribution is not limited to these accomplishments.

Considering that Africa has the highest burden of disease of all the continents (per population), yet it has the lowest number and ratio of health professionals per population, the continent is home to almost 24 percent of the world’s disease burden but has only about 3 percent of health professionals globally. Together with majority of the continent’s population resident in rural areas, China, over the past two decades, has prioritised Africa’s information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure development in its approach to enhance the region’s public health systems. During this period, China has invested far more than any other country in Africa’s ICT infrastructure development. Data from the Infrastructure Consortium for Africa (ICA) show that Chinese investments in the continent’s ICT infrastructure crossed US$1billion for the first time in 2015 – an  enormous and consistent investment dedicated to Africa’s ICT infrastructure development over the years,  which is presently the bedrock of the region’s digital health and a viable solution to the deep-rooted public health challenges. Digital health can make Africa’s public health systems more efficient and sustainable, enabling them to deliver good quality, affordable and equitable healthcare which is essential for achieving the health-related United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs).

With a rapidly growing population in Africa, which is expected to account for the largest global population growth from now to 2050, policy-makers and relevant stakeholders across countries on the continent are presented with an unnerving task to provide good quality, affordable and equitable healthcare to over 2 billion people in nearly three decades from now – a goal that cannot be  achieved without significantly increasing investments in the health sector. African governments and relevant stakeholders could effectively address the continent’s formidable public health challenges and expand universal health coverage by promoting the adoption and scaling up of digital health and innovation, creating strategic partnerships with both foreign and African universities and healthcare institutions to produce more health professionals for the continent, and cultivating the culture of maintenance in healthcare institutions, all of which could be achieved by strengthening the Africa-China public health cooperation, together with other foreign stakeholders that demonstrate genuine commitment to address the region’s pressing public health needs.

The writer is a global economist with keen interest in the social, environmental and economic landscape of both developing and developed countries, particularly in Asia, Africa and Europe.

The article was first published by the China Global Television Network (CGTN)


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