Rwanda will, starting June 21, host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) attracting thousands of high-ranking delegates from the 54 member states of the Commonwealth. Ahead of the high-level summit, Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland was last week in the country on a three-day visit to review preparatory activities. The New Times Collins Mwai spoke to her about the summit, preparatory activities as well as risk factors in the way the preparations. She also spoke on challenges in vaccine access, health care systems and lessons from the pandemic. Excerpts: Considering that the world is still battling the Covid-19 pandemic, is CHOGM happening in June? We are committed to having CHOGM here in Kigali in June this year. The world has gone through the most terrible time since last year when consideration was being given to CHOGM taking place in June 2020. We were still hopeful and didn’t fully understand how Covid-19 was going to be and how it would permeate our lives. It was postponed last time because we were hopeful that by June 2021, we would have Covid-19 behind us. While that has not quite happened, we are absolutely determined to do all we can to make sure in June we are here in Rwanda. Based on your observations as well as previous missions by member states in previous weeks, is Rwanda ready to host the summit? Rwanda is absolutely ready, if you think about the venues that have been constructed specifically for CHOGM. The CHOGM taskforce is motoring 100 per cent, I don’t think we have ever seen a country as ready, anxious, prepared and hopeful about hosting CHOGM. It is a delight to see the passion. Considering that there still exist travel restrictions in some countries, global economic slowdown and recession and probably competing priorities among the various member states, do we expect the previously projected turnout of over 7000 delegates? Everyone is determined that this will be the best CHOGM ever. There hasn’t been a CHOGM in Africa since 2007 when it was held in Kampala. This is a pivotal moment for Africa and it’s such as a wonderful thing that it comes at a time when the African Continental Free Trade Area is going live and 19 countries on the continent are part of it. The preparations have to take into context what is happening in relations to Covid-19. We are hopeful because the vaccines are arriving, the challenge is to make sure that we do everything we can to make sure that people are safe when they come. We cannot guarantee what Covid-19 is going to do. Think of how many times we have been caught napping and there have been spikes. All we can do is plan as effectively, efficiently and flexibly as we can and make sure that we have identified all possible difficulties and that is what the task force team in Rwanda and the Secretariat are doing. All of us have so much sadness as Covid-19 has affected lives and livelihoods. That may be why people are looking to meet in person in June. We want to come together as a family. We have been doing our meetings virtually, but there is a passion and hope when people meet in person. So people are looking forward to meeting up in person. What will determine a successful CHOGM 2021? I think if we have a face-to-face meeting bringing together our 54 members, if we focus on what we need to do to reset the agenda which will take our collective strength and energy and we pull it to address our challenges economically, climatic and related to our health. We have the opportunity to come up with positive creative solutions, I hope that what comes out of Kigali will be a set of implementable solutions. If we can do that, the commonwealth can create a launchpad for Cop26 and find solutions to mend our world. Amidst challenges of unequitable vaccine access with some member countries yet to receive vaccines, is there any initiative by Commonwealth to improve vaccine access? I have been working hard with all our partners including COVAX as well as asking people how we can deal with distribution equitably and evenly. Because many of our small developing and developed states have no access to the vaccine. It is in the interest of the developed to help the developing. It will be much more cost-efficient if we share the vaccines in an equitable way than if few retain the vaccines for themselves. We are supporting our members who are in difficulties on the issue of access. There is also the issue of cost because some of our countries are telling us that they are paying up to 5 times the cost of the vaccine, these are countries that are least able to afford them. We have been working together with WHO to make sure that there is equity and accessibility. What have been the Commonwealth secretariat’s lessons on the state of health systems among its member countries? We had already identified in 2009, that there was a real need to ensure universal health coverage. When you are hit by a pandemic, it tests your health systems. I am pleased that when health ministers met in 2018 and 2019, they had identified that this was a problem. We had previously dealt with epidemics like SARS and Ebola. We didn’t have any idea that the pandemic would be here this soon. We had begun having conversations about how we can help each other with procurement, expertise and strengthening public health. That is work that we had begun. When the pandemic came we had to accelerate that work.