Some experts assert that this coincidental turn of events underscores the health sector brain drain from Africa.
“That’s brain drain,” said Uyilawa Okhuaihesuyi, a former president of the Nigerian Association of Resident Doctors.
“They (Nkengasong and Ihekweazu) have seen better offers and they feel it’s better to leave for greener pastures to further their careers,” Okhuaihesuyi told CNN. “Now is not the best time to leave,” he added.
Medical brain drain persists
“If not managed well, increased demand for health workers, especially in specialities like anaesthesiology, will leave considerable gaps in Africa’s already weak health systems,” the report said.
Many high-income countries were relaxing visa and immigration requirements for health workers in order to meet that demand, the AU said.
“Without the right policies in place, tackling the brain drain from Africa will become an even more challenging endeavour, inevitably leading to an increase in global inequality and neglect of already inadequate health systems.”
“Nothing to worry about”
Nkengasong’s imminent exit from the Africa CDC has fueled concerns about the sustainability of the institution’s Covid-19 action plan.
Nkengasong, however, told CNN there was nothing to worry about.
“Africa CDC has a very strong leadership in place,” he said. “So, I am not at all worried. The organization is rock solid.”
On his part, Nigeria’s Ihekweazu told CNN he had built the NCDC to “outlive any single leader.”
“In the last five years, we have built structures, systems, and people at NCDC with the vision that these will outlive any single leader,” he said. “I am very proud of the work we have done and confident that the 500 members of staff who have led this journey will sustain this beyond my time as Director General,” Ihekweazu added.
Reacting to comments that his move to the WHO’s $100 million Pandemic Hub worsens Africa’s medical brain drain, Ihekweazu argued: “I think that my move to WHO strengthens Africa’s position in the world!”
According to WHO, the hub, which is funded by the German government, was established “to better prepare and protect the world from global disease threats,” and will play key roles in helping “to detect new events with pandemic potential and to monitor disease control measures on a real-time basis.”
Ihekweazu told CNN that beyond his work in Nigeria, he is” strongly committed to seeing African countries grow from being just participants in the consumption of vaccines and other technologies to participants in the basic science and research that leads to them.”
He added: “I believe that my new role at the WHO Pandemic Hub provides an opportunity to contribute to this growth process for Nigeria and the African region — working closely with other colleagues.”
Other gains for Africa
Malawi’s secretary for health, Charles Mwansambo, told CNN that Nkengasong and Ihekweazu’s move to “strategic positions” will be beneficial to Africa.
“We need to start looking at these movements positively because they are good for the continent. The more Africans are in strategic positions, the better Africa will be served,” he said, adding that Nkengasong’s new role at PEPFAR would be crucial to Africa’s HIV/AIDS response.
“Though Covid is here with us, there are other conditions like HIV that have been with us for some time. So, getting an African there [at PEPFAR] will make a whole difference to the fight against HIV/AIDS on the continent… PEPFAR has some great influence in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa, especially Malawi which is a major beneficiary. It’s the right move for the continent,” Mwansambo said.
Nkengasong would potentially fill the leadership vacuum at PEPFAR, which has been without a leader for nearly two years.
Steve Ahuka, an incident manager for the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Covid-19 response, told CNN that he hopes Nkengasong and Ihekweazu’s successors will be as passionate as their predecessors in the fight against infectious diseases.
“Though we will prefer to have them [Nkengasong and Ihekweazu] during this moment when the African continent is facing Covid-19 crisis, the battle against infectious diseases is done as a team… I hope Nkengasong and Ihekweazu have built a strong team in Nigeria and the Africa CDC, and their successors will continue the work to fight the Covid crisis,” Ahuka said.
Githinji Gitahi, a member of the Africa CDC’s governing board, told CNN that Nkengasong “will be difficult to replace.”
“Nkengasong has built a formidable reputation for the Africa CDC and attracted partners and resources that have enabled it to achieve its mandate of coordination of disease surveillance and response. He will be greatly missed,” he said.
Gitahi wants regional centers of the Africa CDC to be strengthened so that the power of the parent organization is devolved.
However, he said it was important that Nkengasong and Ihekweazu were moving to institutions “that have a huge impact on the health of African people and their health security.”
A spokesman for Uganda’s health ministry, Ainebyoona Emmanuel, told CNN Nkengasong and Ihekweazu’s exit from the continent “is not a brain drain, but rather African leaders advancing to global leaders.”