BRAZZAVILLE, Congo Republic (AP) — When Dr. Matshidiso Moeti walks into a meeting at the World Health Organization’s Africa offices in the Republic of Congo, everyone in the room stands up. Moeti is the first woman to oversee WHO’s regional Africa office, finishing off a pioneering career in which she overcome discrimination to become one of the world’s top health executives in apartheid South Africa.

Moeti is the Director-General of the World Health Organization for Africa, where he coordinates emergency health-care response in 47 nations throughout the continent and provides advice on how to strengthen health-care systems.

Moeti has been fighting the world’s deadliest Ebola flare in West Africa since her appointment in 2015.

Moeti’s most difficult task now is to assist Africa in responding to the coronavirus epidemic, since the continent lags behind the rest of the globe in testing and immunization efforts.

She has become one of the most powerful voices in the world, advocating for greater consideration of Africa’s people, particularly women, who have been disproportionately affected by COVID. On a continent where patriarchal traditions still control most of life, her status as an African woman has been both a strength and a hindrance.

During a recent visit to WHO Africa headquarters in Brazzaville, Moeti, 67, told The Associated Press, “I’m doing my absolute best to be there not just as a professional, a manager, and a leader, but also as a woman from the area, from the continent.” “At the same time, I’m looking forward to the day when it won’t be obvious that a woman owns a company.”

This is part of a year long documentary on how the pandemic is impacting African women, particularly in poorest countries. The European Media Centre’s European Development Media Grants program, which is sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is funding the Associated Press series. The AP has complete control over all material.

 To keep her word, Moeti has made strides inside WHO Africa, developing a leadership program that has resulted in more women being promoted by guaranteeing that female job applicants are treated equally to male job applicants.

At WHO Africa, where virtually equal numbers of men and women wander around the huge campus, approximately a 20-minute drive west of Brazzaville along the Congo River, improved gender parity is visible. Moeti is happy that during her time in office, the ratio of men to women has altered – in the vast conference room where meetings and Zoom calls are place, she now has four female directors and four male directors flanking her. It used to be three women to six males.

Women in Africa have been disproportionately affected by the epidemic, with lower vaccination rates, economic hardship, growing pregnancies, various healthcare difficulties, and a rise in domestic and gender-based violence, and Moeti has made tackling this inequity a cornerstone of her work.

“I often think about some of these people who are most regularly disadvantaged and skipped by health services… the kind of adolescent girl who is transitioning from being a child cared for by child medical services to someone who is a woman of childbearing age, with all the security flaws that implies in Africa,” Moeti said.

I’m thinking about female acquaintances. The braided-haired lady who lost her job due to the government shutdown and is afraid of immunizations. A senior citizen lugging her belongings up and down steep slopes. Vendors at the market have been instructed to close their booths.

In comparison to the rest of the globe, Africa has a lower rate of COVID-19 instances, however this is likely owing to lower testing levels. Countries have struggled to manage the sick, and vaccination rates are poor, with just around 13% of Africa’s 1.3 billion people completely vaccinated as of March 1.

“The challenges have primarily been learning about this new virus, adjusting swiftly, and assisting nations in doing the same,” she explained. She pointed out that Africa faced particular challenges: just a few nations on the continent could test for COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic, but today nearly every country can. Africa has been reliant on imported immunizations, resulting in protracted delays while wealthy nations purchased vaccines first.

In retrospect, Moeti wishes she had focused more on Africa’s low-income countries in need of vaccination assistance.

During Moeti’s term, a commission in Congo discovered that WHO-contracted staff employees were among humanitarian workers who perpetrated sexual assault during the Ebola epidemic from 2018 to 2020. According to Moeti, rules have been put in place to ensure that this does not happen again, including more severe recruiting and oversight of contract workers.

Moeti feels hopeful about Africa’s recovery from the epidemic, as well as WHO’s participation in it.

She gives appreciation to the women in her family for helping her achieve so much. Moeti’s mother was a doctor, and her grandmother was a widowed teacher who had seven children to raise in a South African culture that valued males. Moeti described her as a “very determined, soldiering-on type of woman.”

Moeti feels herself lucky to have grown up in a family that valued education above all else. Her parents moved to Botswana from apartheid-era South Africa in order to provide a better education for their children.

Moeti says her family continues to motivate her to improve Africa’s health care. Moeti stated that she wants to help improve the lives of young African girls who are suffering as a result of COVID-19 by encouraging and developing them as leaders.

“I’m a youngster who was in a South African township and going around the streets,” she wants them to know. I’m hoping this will inspire them.”

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