Friends In Need, Friends Indeed: Q & A With Dr Rasha Kelej On The Merck Foundation Response To COVID-19 In Africa

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The COVID-19 pandemic may have slowed its agenda, but the Merck Foundation under the leadership of its CEO Rasha Kelej remains a dependable development partner for Africa. From continuous engagement with African first Ladies to raising awareness and showing appreciation to frontline actors, Dr. Rasha Kelej sheds light on the response of the Merck Foundation to COVID 19 in Africa in the following Q & A

With the first ladies that you work with, what initiatives have been embarked on in response to COVID 19?

Merck Foundation has raced to respond to the Coronavirus pandemic in partnership with 18 African First Ladies, Ministries of Health, Information, and Education focusing on four main areas: community support, training doctors, and community awareness through our “stay at home “ media recognition awards and children's storybook.
To give a brief;

1) Community donations: The lockdown imposed in most countries had hit the daily workers and women the most, making it very difficult for them to survive. Therefore, we partnered with the African First Ladies of Liberia, Ghana, DR Congo, Zimbabwe, Niger, Sierra Leone, Malawi (Former) and Burkina Faso to support the livelihood of thousands of women and families of casual and daily workers who are most affected by the Coronavirus (COVID -19) lockdown. The relief contribution was also undertaken in Egypt with the aim to support 500 families.

2) Coronavirus Healthcare Capacity Building: We strongly believe that building professional healthcare capacity is the right strategy to improve access to quality and equitable healthcare especially during this vicious pandemic, therefore, Merck Foundation will strongly continue their current capacity advancement programs and will especially focus on building Coronavirus healthcare capacity through providing African and Asian medical postgraduates with a one-year online diploma and two-year online Master degree in both Respiratory Medicines and Acute Medicines at one of the UK Universities. This program is in partnership with African First Ladies, Ministers of Health and Academia across the two continents.

As part of our strategy of responding to coronavirus lockdown, we scaled up to more African and Asian medical postgraduates to provide online medical specialization scholarships. We will now focus more on online scholarships which will be a one-year diploma and two-year master's degree in several specialties such as Diabetes, Cardiovascular Preventive Medicines, Endocrinology, and Sexual and Reproductive Medicines. We invite Medical Graduates to apply for these courses by emailing us on submit@merckfoundation.com

3) Community Awareness: We also launched ‘Stay at Home’ Media Recognition Awards in partnership with  First Ladies of Ghana, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Malawi (Former), Namibia, Niger, Guinea Conakry, Burundi (Former), Central African Republic (C.A.R.), Chad, Zimbabwe, Zambia, The Gambia, Liberia and Congo Brazzaville, Angola, Mali, Mozambique for English, French, Portuguese and Arabic Speaking African countries. The awards have been also announced for Middle Eastern, Asian countries, and in Spanish for Latin American Countries. The theme of the awards is ‘Raising Awareness on how to Stay Safe, Keep Physically and Mentally Healthy during Coronavirus Lockdown with the aim to separate facts from myths and misconceptions. The winners of the awards will be announced soon.

4) Community awareness for Children and Youth: We also launched an inspiring storybook called ‘Making the Right Choice’ in partnership with 18 African First Ladies. The story aims to raise awareness about coronavirus prevention amongst children and youth as it provides facts about the pandemic and how to stay safe and healthy during the outbreak. It also promotes honesty, hard work, and the ability to make the right choices even during the most challenging times. The story has been released in three languages: English, French, and Portuguese.

There is also a song out -My White Army song from a group of 11 artists from 11 African countries in three languages; for ur first time in Arabic, French and English. On the pandemic, how did you come about this initiative?

I started this song as an idea of creating an inspiring pan African song which aims to thank the doctors and nurses fighting on the front lines of the coronavirus battle, who are risking exposure to the virus so everyone else can stay home and stay healthy.

I strongly believe, it is important for the people on the front line; doctors, nurses, and health workers to know how grateful we are. I did not want this to be a one-off thank you, but one that becomes a regular act of gratitude across our communities. I have heard stories of horrible behavior against our health workers, such as, landlords are forcefully evicting them due to paranoia that they might spread COVID -19. It is shocking, illegal, and inhuman behavior”.

Through the My White Army song, singers representing Africa are expressing our love, respect, and gratitude for doctors, nurses, and health workers, the frontliners in the coronavirus battle. It is their messages of support for those braving the outbreak to help others.

This is the first time in Africa and maybe in the world that 11 singers from 11 African countries in three languages have participated in one song, to support the medical staff during this difficult time.

The title of the song- ‘My White Army’ simply refers to the team of health workers who wear white uniforms to save and defend us against the coronavirus pandemic which seems like a battle to the world.

What criteria was used in picking the 11 artists that were used for the song and what is the feedback you have received since the song was released?

The criteria I used were to approach singers from Arabic, English, and French-speaking countries with representation from East, West, North, and South Africa. Of course, I approached many singers, but I selected the ones who showed passion and great interest and were willing to work under these difficult times and restrictions.

I must say am happy with the team of singers that could come on board, but this is the beginning of a series of projects and songs to be done from different countries including Portuguese speaking countries. Singers from all countries will be contacted and represented in the future to create songs to address different sensitive topics in Africa.

The 6th edition of Merck Africa Asia Luminary took place in Ghana last year, what souvenirs did you take out the forum, and with COVID 19, what plans for the next one?

Of course this year we will not be able to conduct the luminary in Zambia in October like it was originally planned due to coronavirus pandemic new regulations.  We will conduct our forums online this year and we will postpone the luminary to 2021. Hopefully, by then everything will be under control.

You were listed last year amongst the top 100 most influential Africans by New African magazine; how did you receive this news?

I am very proud to be listed among the 100 Most Influential Africans of 2019. This recognition is very important for me and for Merck foundation as it acknowledges my efforts, my team’s efforts for empowering infertile women and extensively working on eliminating the stigma associated with infertility through our historic campaign ‘Merck More Than a Mother’ that aims to empower infertile women through access to information, education, and change of mind-sets. I am very passionate about this cause and I love my work and my achievements as an African woman.

Through this movement, we have succeeded to initiate a cultural shift to de-stigmatize infertility at all levels: By improving awareness, training local experts in the fields of fertility care and media, building advocacy in cooperation with 18 African First Ladies who are the ambassadors of this movement, I love to work with them. And also, by supporting childless women in starting their own small businesses. It’s all about giving every woman the respect and the help she deserves to live a fulfilling life, with or without a child.

May we have an idea of any other initiatives or projects that the Merck Foundation will be working on in the course of the year?

In addition to the four areas, we are focusing on response to COVID 19. We will focus on online specialty education like as mentioned earlier.  And of course, all our awards, which can be conducted remotely. The full focus will be on our community awareness through our social media channel. I am very proud that we reached 3 m followers on all our channels including my private channels @Rasha Kelej. I am still thanks to all technology platforms, in close contact with all our partners, as our Alumni and new candidates to ensure that Merck foundation is on the right track to realize our vision.

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The Merck Foundation, established in 2017, is the philanthropic arm of Merck KGaA Germany, aims to improve the health and wellbeing of people and advance their lives through science and technology. Our efforts are primarily focused on improving access to quality & equitable healthcare solutions in underserved communities, building healthcare and scientific research capacity and empowering people in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) with a special focus on women and youth.

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Founded in 1668, Merck is the world's oldest pharmaceutical and chemical company. The founding family remains the majority owner of the publicly listed corporate group. Merck holds the global rights to the Merck name and brand. The only exceptions are the United States and Canada, where the company operates as EMD Serono, MilliporeSigma.