Dr Choonara’s empathetic outlook and passion for public healthcare have been shaped by her own experience.
Driven by an interest in creating systems that take the human experience into account, Johannesburg-based Dr Shakira Choonara believes healthcare should focus on a community’s social needs as much as it does on medical skills.
She is an independent public health practitioner working on a range of projects for the United Nations, the World Health Organisation and regional nongovernmental organisations.
Her current projects include providing expertise as the international expert on the National HIV Gender Assessment in Tanzania, the National HIV Gender Assessment in South Africa, accelerating universal health coverage for communities and young people in Eastern and Southern Africa and being a facilitator for the First Lady of Botswana Strategy Development Meetings in 2019.
Her goal to become minister of health in South Africa, at some point in her career, is no secret: “I want to become a responsive leader, which is what’s missing on the African continent. I want to be accessible to young people and bring networks of young people addressing various issues across the continent together by creating spaces where there is more collaboration between professionals who are working on environmental issues and healthcare workers — we should work together to come to the solutions that better respond to our needs.
“I want to empower young people to understand the AU policies and know that they have the power to hold these organisations to their words; the African Union is only as effective as the member states that adopt what it puts out,” she says.
In her volunteering work, she monitors PPE shortages through the Stop Stockouts project; she mentors public health students through Global Health Mentorships; she is a USAID YouthLead peer advisor and ambassador; and also part of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation youth projects.
Choonara has earned numerous accolades, including Africa Youth Awards 100 Most influential Young Africans and Destiny magazine’s Most Powerful Woman under 40 in South Africa.
She maintains that they aren’t worth much unless they speak truth to power, with the public’s interest in mind. Even in her position on the African Union’s Youth Advisory Council, Choonara is vocal in her critique of the implementation of policies, or the lack thereof.
Her passion for public healthcare was inspired by her own experience: growing up in a deprived environment with limited access to dignified healthcare. Helping her late father, who lived with a disability, navigate public healthcare and seeing the difficulties firsthand has shaped her empathetic outlook on the work she does and keeps the urgency of these matters in perspective.
She went on to obtain her PhD at the University of the Witwatersrand, and says that she resonates with the students who were fighting for affordable tertiary fees, because she too was once unable to afford the registration fee.
“I hope that more leaders who find themselves in positions where they can affect change take the time to reflect on the circumstances they come from and aim to achieve more for people living in similar or worse conditions. The work we do shouldn’t only improve our lives; we need to keep the focus on making an impact on the community.”