Health practitioners and experts attending the inaugural Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi, Kenya, have expressed displeasure with the exclusion of health on the main agenda despite its inextricable link with climate change.
Speaking at a side event within the summit, the specialists from the sector expressed worry that a comprehensive health standpoint is likely to be missed from the ‘Nairobi Declaration’, which the meeting is intended to culminate in.
The theme of the summit is “Driving green growth and climate finance solutions for Africa and the World”. The Nairobi Declaration aims to give the African Group of Negotiators (AGN) a common voice ahead of the 28th Conference of Parties (COP28) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to be held this year in the United Arab Emirates.
The Acting Deputy Director General of Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), Ahmed Ouma Ogwell, expressed regret that health had been excluded from the conference’s main agenda.
“Agriculture, health and development are suffering. So bringing the health discussion onto the agenda of the climate change platform is essential for Africa,” said Ogwell, stressing the link between climate change and health.
He said that any discussion about financing for climate change mitigation, building resilience and adaptation must include financing for the public health sector, which is equally strained.
“We must highlight the relationship between climate change, environment and health. We must have a clear approach on how best we can prevent the health disasters that come about as a result of the effects of climate change,” said Ogwell.
He also called for partnerships as avenues for solutions for climate-related health emergencies, adding that the adverse effects of climate change might cripple the healthcare systems in Africa if action is not taken now.
The exclusion is happening against the backdrop of 23 per cent of diseases globally being attributed to vagaries of climate change, while the percentage is documented to be slightly higher in sub-Saharan Africa at 29 per cent.
As Africa experienced drought and other extreme weather events, climate-related crises worsened in the Horn of Africa, with a surge in disease outbreaks.
While wondering how a high-profile climate change meeting such as the ACS23 would fail to prioritise public health on its agenda, the Group CEO of Amref Health Africa, Githinji Gitahi, emphasised the need for immediate climate action.
“Sadly, the organisers seem to have overlooked the urgency of this health crisis, as it remains conspicuously absent from the summit’s agenda. This isn’t merely an oversight; it’s a haunting omission that risks squandering a golden opportunity to amplify Africa’s voice on a global stage, especially with the 78th Session of the United Nations General Assembly and COP28 looming on the horizon,” said Githinji.
With the health of the African population at stake, leaders have to seize the moment and petition for the inclusion of health into climate change dialogue, ensuring that the continent’s needs are heard and acted upon at international forums, he added.
“Loss of health due to climate change could mean the loss of cultural heritage, indigenous knowledge, societal or cultural identity, and biodiversity, which can contribute to the deteriorating mental health of the people,” said Githinji.
Despite the disappointment, the Director for Population Health and Environment at Amref Health Africa, Martin Muchangi, was optimistic that a promising shift is emerging, which might help integrate the health agenda into climate change solutions.
“Key players like Africa’s health ministers and civil society organisations, including Amref Health Africa, are leading the charge in framing health as central to the climate agenda,” said Muchangi.
He said these influential voices are elevating the discourse and laying the groundwork for policy initiatives that will prioritize health in climate action. He added that such efforts represent a strategic and smart move to direct the focus of climate dialogues towards a more holistic approach.
While emphasising that ACS23 presented a pivotal moment to address the undeniable interplay between climate and health, which some described as a matter of life and death, the tragic irony wasn’t lost on them.
Judy Omumbo, a researcher and vector-borne disease epidemiologist, said he couldn’t understand how agriculture, for instance, was prioritised over public health.
“African leaders often forget to include the health agenda when addressing climate change and development. Every time we talk about development, we hardly talk about people and their survival. Yet they have to be at the centre,” said Omumbo.
Despite only speaking from the sidelines of ACS23, the health practitioners and specialists are hopeful that such discussions will not be missed at the COP28 and hopefully result in legally binding commitments.
They urged countries to design mechanisms to finance the health impacts of climate change by coming up with investment opportunities that will help cushion vulnerable populations against health impacts.