Celicia Serenata, the driver of this supplement, and friend and colleague of so many of the authors, died in a short but fierce battle with cancer on April 15, at the age of 51 years. She was a rare being, a health justice warrior that was content to work hard in the trenches, doing unglamorous organizational work while supporting what was right.
Celicia Serenata grew up in Klerksdorp in South Africa and was educated on politics at the University of Potchefstroom. She got thrust into policy development in the Department of Health, where she helped draft the initial South African government plan to roll out antiretrovirals, conceived in secret backroom meetings out of the eye of the denialist politicians of the time. It was here, in the AIDS wars in South Africa, that many of us met her, one of the many undercover activists of the time that fought for rational thinking and access to HIV care for the general population (she helped facilitate the formal inclusion of foreigners within the South African HIV program) in a world where politicians were more interested in scoring points than securing the population's health.
After a stint in the local President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) office, working for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), she joined the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI), as the Deputy Country Director in SA (2010–2013) before heading off for Boston and then for Hanoi, both for CHAI. Celicia returned to work in the gender unit at the SA Medical Research Council, before joining the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Research Institute and then as a senior member at Wits’ Ezintsha, directing affordable drug access, including access to safer and better antiretrovirals.
She was a critical part of the team that directed ADVANCE, one of the largest HIV treatment studies ever done in Africa, that has defined modern treatment on the continent, and where she played a pivotal role in coordinating access to these treatments with Department of Health colleagues in the public sector.
Ironically, at the time of her death, her work was on the scandalously priced oncology agents that cancer patients lack access to in southern Africa (her passion for her work on this driven by the memory of her dad, who died of cancer when she was just a teenager).
She was a passionate and critical voice for civil society, using her talent for networking to advocate for more money from donors while providing oversight to grant writing and implementation, as well as serving on multiple committees and advisory boards. Her Facebook profile was peppered with outrage at the everyday injustices in South Africa and elsewhere, as she participated in the social justice pivot from the HIV access era to sex-based violence, Black Lives Matter, xenophobia, and access to Covid-19 care. Her profile also showcased her love for family and her role as “The Aunt.”
We could salute her unsung hero status and repeat “daughter of Africa” platitudes, but she would hate that. We could laud her impatience with inefficiency and with “talkers” and people who did not read their emails, her fierce oversight of efficient donor spending, her work ethic (she was sending emails just hours before her death), and her perfectionism when it came to reporting and writing documents (we all lived in fear of a corrective call that started with “Listen, dude…”). She was one of those wondrous people, a sought-after dinner and travel companion (you could not walk more than 10 steps at a conference without bumping into someone she knew), endlessly interesting and funny, and never without her laptop, iPad, iPod, and Kindle. Long conference calls were made bearable by her wicked humor during parallel irreverent WhatsApp groups. She maintained a vast array of international relationships and juggled friendships on multiple continents.
The outcry of grief from every corner of the globe on social media has been loud and sustained. We all miss her intensely.
(this article is based on a Daily Maverick article published by her friends, work colleagues, and family, which can be accessed at https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-04-16-celicia-serenata-one-of-the-lion-hearted).
Conflicts of interest
There are no conflicts of interest.