HEALTHCARE HEROES HONOURED
Two South African health sector veterans appointed to French National Order of Merit
Dr Fareed Abdullah and Professor Helen Rees, two South African medical practitioners with a long history of working for better healthcare and human rights within South Africa and the global community, were recently appointed to the French National Order of Merit by French President Emmanuel Macron.
In the realm of health and human rights, both Dr Fareed Abdullah and Professor Helen Rees have been a consistent and dedicated presence within South Africa and the international community for more than 25 years. They have shaped healthcare policies and responses, riding out periods of turbulent change in the form of the HIV/Aids crisis and, more recently, the Covid-19 pandemic.
In a decision taken by French President Emmanuel Macron on 7 February and announced on 22 February, Abdullah and Rees were appointed as Knight of the French National Order of Merit and Officer of the French National Order of Merit, respectively.
The National Order of Merit was created in the mid-20th century as a universal order rewarding distinguished merit and honouring individuals from all fields of activity, according to the website of the Grand Chancery.
For Rees, founder and executive director of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute, the appointment serves as recognition for her “outstanding medical career focused on sexual and reproductive health”, according to a letter issued to Rees by Aurélien Lechevallier, the French ambassador to South Africa. Lechevallier further acknowledged the assistance Rees had provided to the embassy team through regular communication on the Covid-19 situation and immunisation strategy in South Africa.
Abdullah, the director in the Office of Aids and TB Research at the South African Medical Research Council, was appointed a Knight of the French National Order of Merit for his involvement as a clinical researcher and public health specialist in the fight against HIV and tuberculosis, according to a letter issued to Abdullah by Lechevallier.
Professor Helen Rees
Being appointed an Officer of the French National Order of Merit serves as recognition of a lifetime’s work, in Rees’s view. In the last 15 years, she has been active in South African healthcare and in the broader African region and global health space.
Beginning her career as a clinical doctor in paediatrics, Rees was always interested in reproductive health. She returned to South Africa from Zimbabwe in the early 1980s and worked at the Alexandra Clinic in Johannesburg, becoming more involved in the reproductive health sphere.
“Then, of course, we were approaching 1994 and I was working with the ANC health structures,” said Rees. “In the early ’90s, we were developing health policy for a democratic South Africa. So, I was then involved with developing… what was called then the ‘women’s health policy’.”
After 1994 – at a time when HIV was emerging as an issue – Rees was tasked with setting up a research entity for women’s reproductive health. The small entity of about five people grew into what is today the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute (Wits RHI), made up of more than 2,000 people.
Wits RHI’s focus has expanded from sexual reproductive health to encompass HPV vaccines, paediatric and maternal vaccines, and most recently, Covid-19 vaccines. The institute has also begun focusing on climate change and health.
“With all of the research that we do… it’s highly relevant to the local populations, both in South Africa and in the African region,” said Rees.
Rees feels that she, like many others working in medicine, is motivated by a love of the job and the possibility of making a difference.
“I think a lot of people… working in medicine do it because there’s a huge love for the job very often, but particularly in the public health and the global health space,” she said. “Many people who work in this space are experts in their respective fields, but they also are very often activists.”
Having worked in Alexandra township during apartheid in the 1980s, part of what Rees and her colleagues did was protect young people and hide them in the clinic to stop them from being arrested.
“That’s a very vivid memory,” said Rees. “The sort of activist side is that you can’t – if you’re caring for communities of people – you can’t separate that from… the extension of what people are going through.”
On her appointment to the French National Order of Merit, Rees emphasised that she had received the award not just because of her own actions, but because she has been fortunate enough to work with teams of excellent people.
“An individual alone doesn’t do the achieving of change,” said Rees. “So, I mean, I would salute the staff in Wits RHI, who are superb, superb scientists and utterly committed, but also the people who work on many of these global committees and boards that I work on, [who] are all just such committed individuals. And it’s teams, it’s teams that actually create successes, not individuals.”
Dr Fareed Abdullah
Abdullah has worked on the frontline during two major health crises in South Africa – the HIV/Aids crisis of the early 2000s, and the recent Covid-19 pandemic. While HIV, as a slower-moving, chronic disease, differs significantly from Covid-19, during the peak of mortality for HIV between 2ooo and 2004, hospitals were facing similar struggles to those that marked the course of the past two years. These struggles were mainly related to capacity, efficiency, supplies and logistics, said Abdullah.
“My involvement in HIV goes – honestly, I kid you not – goes back to like 1988,” said Abdullah. “And even at that time, there were a group of us who really thought, ‘This is going to be a big epidemic’, you know. The first studies were published, I went to my first Aids conference in Montreal in 1989.”
During his time in the Western Cape Department of Health – first as chief director of healthcare between 1996 and 2000, then as deputy director-general between 2001 and 2006 – Abdullah facilitated the provision of antiretroviral (ARV) and short-course zidovudine treatments for HIV in the province.
Abdullah described his decision to stand up to the national government by providing ARV treatment in the Western Cape at a time when the government was refusing to do so on a countrywide level, as one of the undertakings that stands out in his career.
“I was young and brave and fearless. So, you know, we kind of grew up in the UDF [United Democratic Front], I was involved in the anti-apartheid movement,” said Abdullah. “So, we had the very good moral compass, we had the very good political education. We were serious about wanting to build a new society, and so it was pretty easy to know right from wrong, whether it came from your leaders in the government, which you sort of loved and wanted and revered… or whether it came from any other sort of right-wing government.”
He added that one only needed so much medical knowledge to know that providing ARVs was the right thing to do from a medical point of view.
With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Abdullah once again played an active role in managing an unfolding crisis. Since April 2020, he has been a member of the Steve Biko Academic Hospital Outbreak Response Team. This has involved working as a clinician in the Covid-19 wards, as well as assisting with fundraising and the provision of Covid-related equipment, staffing and infrastructure.
“There’s a lot you can do from one hospital. I did a lot of fundraising for equipment for Steve Biko,” said Abdullah, adding that at one point during the pandemic he received R100-million from the Solidarity Fund, with which he and a team were able to buy equipment for 16 hospitals in Gauteng.
“So, the previous time around, I used my authority as a senior government official to drive something. This time around, you know, I used my experience in one hospital to impact the bigger picture,” he said.
There are many moments in Abdullah’s long career that stand out for him, but a key one is joining Zackie Achmat, the then head of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), in taking Nelson Mandela on a tour of an ARV treatment facility in Site B of Khayelitsha. It was 2002, and for Abdullah, it felt like a turning point. “If Mandela is on your side, you know, who can defeat you?” he said.
Sibongile Tshabalala, the national chairperson of the TAC, said that working with Abdullah over the years had been a great honour, especially in light of his long relationship with the organisation.
“He’s been assisting us a lot in terms of issues that we need to understand in terms of treatment, understanding the budget and knowing what is happening, especially in the field of medicine,” said Tshabalala.
“Now and again, when we face challenges, especially that are affecting people living with HIV, we always engage with him. And even recently, when we were hit by Covid, he is one of the doctors who kept us informed in telling us what needs to be done, how to deal with Covid, which was really helpful.” DM
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