Put health, national security in one bucket

Covid-19 testing


Residents of Eastleigh estate in Nairobi waits in the queue to be tested during a mass testing exercise for Covid-19 in Nairobi on May 20, 2020.

Photo credit: AFP

What you need to know:

  • Covid-19 has demonstrated just how broken health systems all over the world are, and Kenya was no exception. 
  • Much pain and suffering would and can still be avoided with a better-resourced health system.

We have finally come to the end of one of the worst years in living memory for most people in the world. 

The disruption occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic began as a health crisis and by the end of the year had ballooned into a political and socio-economic crisis as well. 

As we welcome 2021, there are glimmers of hope that we might finally be able to manage the health component of this crisis through the use of vaccines and new treatments being churned out at unprecedented speeds. 

There is hope that we have collectively built up the global capacity to cooperate in the face of health threats emanating from any corner of the world.

Today, I would like to unpackage these lessons and mould them into a couple of things I will wish for in this new year.

Firstly, there will be a slew of political events in Kenya this year. Several by-elections are scheduled, and indications are that we may be subjected to a referendum on the need to change certain aspects of our constitution. 

Campaigns for these activities will begin this month, and will go on past the end of this year as we gear up for a general election next year.

My wish is that we take lessons from 2020, that we all need each other in order to prosper, and that political contests need not translate into physical conflict and bloodshed. 

My hope is that we will campaign with decorum, that we will vote peacefully and that we will embrace each other, congratulate the winners and wish the losers better luck next time, and then go back to our daily toil to build our nation together. A tough task, I know. But doable.

Bargaining chip

Secondly, Covid-19 has demonstrated just how broken health systems all over the world are, and Kenya was no exception. 

A good number of those we have lost in 2020 would have survived with a more robust health system with coordinated care beginning from the community level to the highest specialised referral facilities. 

Much pain and suffering would and can still be avoided with a better-resourced health system that is seen as a national resource rather than a bargaining chip for politicians.

My wish for 2021 is that we will finally come to our senses and agree to put the lives of our people first when it comes to health planning and policy-making.

It is my hope that we will more critically interrogate the question of placing the responsibility for the health of the nation in the same bucket we place the responsibility for national security. 

Let us resolve to remake the health system as we would any matter of life and death. 

Let us agree to adequately fund our health system, to recruit and deploy sufficient numbers of health workers, and to properly equip and motivate them in order to allow them to protect the rest of us.

Forthwith, wars will be fought using biology and technology that targets the health of populations. And not all our adversaries will be enemy states and terror groups. 

Some will be invisible agents such as Covid-19. A broken health system represents a country without a defence force, open to attack by all and sundry.

Lukoye Atwoli is Professor of Psychiatry and Dean, Aga Khan University Medical College, East Africa lukoye@gmail.com

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