BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo (AP) — People stand when Dr. Matshidiso Moeti enters a room at the World Health Organization’s Africa headquarters in Republic of Congo. Small in stature, big in presence, Moeti is the first woman to lead WHO’s regional Africa office, the capstone of her trailblazing career in which she has overcome discrimination in apartheid South Africa to become one of the world’s top health administrators.
As WHO Africa chief, Moeti initiates emergency responses to health crises in 47 of the continent’s countries and recommends policies to strengthen their health care systems.
Since her appointment in 2015, Moeti has grappled with the world’s deadliest Ebola outbreak, in West Africa.
Now Moeti is facing her toughest challenge: helping Africa respond to the coronavirus pandemic as the continent trails the rest of the world in testing and vaccination efforts.
She has become one of the world’s most compelling voices urging better consideration of Africa’s people — especially women, who’ve in many ways been hit hardest by COVID. Her identity as an African woman has been both a strength and an obstacle on a continent where much of society is still dominated by patriarchal systems.
“I’m certainly doing my best to be there not only as a technician and a manager and a leader, but also very much as a woman from the region, from the continent,” Moeti, 67, told The Associated Press during a recent visit to WHO Africa headquarters in Brazzaville. “At the same time … I’m looking forward to the day when it will no longer be notable that there’s a woman leading an organization.”
Moeti has made strides within WHO Africa to follow through on her word — starting a leadership program that has helped promote more women by ensuring that female applicants for jobs are taken as seriously as men.
Improved gender parity is evident at WHO Africa, where nearly equal numbers of men and women walk around the sprawling campus, about a 20-minute drive outside Brazzaville along the Congo River. In her time in office, Moeti said, she is proud to have shifted the ratio of men to women — now, four female directors and four male directors flank her in the grand conference room where meetings and Zoom calls are held. Prior, it was three women to six men.
In Africa, women have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic — with lower vaccine rates, economic turmoil, rising pregnancies, other healthcare issues, increases in domestic and gender-based violence — and Moeti has made addressing that inequality a cornerstone of her work.
“Very often I’m thinking about those people who are most frequently disadvantaged and missed by the health services … the kind of adolescent girl, that person who is transitioning from being a child taken care of by the child health services to being a woman of reproductive age with all the vulnerabilities that that that implies in Africa,” Moeti said.
She thinks of women she knows. The woman who braids her hair, who lost work because of the lockdown and is scared of the vaccine. An elderly woman who must carry her load of food up and down steep hills. Women selling produce at marketplaces forced to close their stalls.
The way out of the pandemic is to reach these women with awareness campaigns and economic aid, she said.
To this end, Moeti tries to get out into the field monthly. She’s frequently joined by government officials and the convoy can attract a crowd — as with a recent trip to the dense Ouenze neighborhood of Brazzaville. In a small yard outside a health center, Moeti, the health minister, mayor and others listened to 25-year-old biochemistry student Arnie Mayeyenda explain COVID-19 and vaccinations to residents.
Africa has shown lower rates of COVID-19 cases compared with the rest of the world, but that’s likely due to lower testing levels. Countries have struggled to treat the sick, and vaccination rates are low, with just over 13% of Africa’s 1.3 billion people fully vaccinated by the beginning of March.
“The difficulties have really been about learning about this new virus, adapting quickly and helping countries to do the same,” she said. She noted Africa faces unique challenges — at the start of the pandemic only a handful of the continent’s countries could test for COVID-19, now virtually every nation can. Africa has been dependent upon imported vaccines which resulted in lengthy delays as rich nations bought the inoculations first.
With hindsight, Moeti says she wishes she’d focused more on Africa’s low-income countries that needed help getting vaccines.
A major controversy during Moeti’s term erupted in Congo where a commission found that WHO-contracted staff members were among aid workers who perpetrated sexual abuse during the Ebola crisis from 2018 to 2020. Moeti said policies have been implemented to be sure this does not happen again, including more stringent management of the hiring and supervision of contract workers.
Moeti is optimistic about Africa’s path out of the pandemic — and WHO’s role in that progress.
The women in her family helped her to achieve so much, she says. Moeti’s mother was a doctor, and her grandmother a teacher who was widowed with seven girls to raise in a South African society that favored sons. Moeti speaks of her as a hero — “a very determined, soldiering-on type of woman.”
Moeti says she was privileged to be raised in a family that valued education above all else. Her parents moved from apartheid South Africa to Botswana so the children could get a better education.
Moeti says her family continues to motivate her to improve Africa’s health care. Thinking of young African girls suffering during COVID-19, Moeti says she wants to help improve their lives, inspire them and make them into leaders.
She wants them to know: “I’m a child who was in the South African township and running around the streets. I hope that will encourage them.”