We're offering services we can’t afford. We are scared of our lives, say health frontline workers

Nyeri county referral hospital

A health worker checks the temperature of a visitor at the Nyeri County Referral Hospital on August 19, 2020.

Photo credit: Joseph Kanyi | Nation Media Group

Donned in white personal protective gear, a face shield, gloves and gumboots, Dr Stella Mbuga reports for duty at the Nyeri County Referral Hospital.

She is among tens of frontline health workers working round the clock, risking their lives, to keep the virus at bay.

“My experience as a frontline health worker has been tough. I have been to quarantine twice in the last two months after being exposed to two Covid-19 positive cases from my ward,” she said.

The 26-year-old medical officer attached to the maternity ward at the facility says the experience bears a resemblance to being in a battlefield.

While handling patients during this pandemic is imaginably torturous, frontline health workers are expected to be brave and in good shape, both emotionally and mentally.

But for Dr Mbuga, the experience is psychologically demanding much as it is giving.

She has been quarantined twice, leaving domestic chores like taking care of her son to her siblings.

“While in quarantine, I underwent a lot of psychological torture. I feared that I could turn positive and that I could have exposed my loved ones at home,” she said.

With the demanding nature of the task, the medic says she at times feels inadequate as a mother to her two-year-old son.

“I would stay for over a month without seeing my son because I was afraid he might contract the virus from me,” she said.

She added that being a frontline health worker handling Covid-19 patients has alienated her from her family members.

“I have also found myself sub-consciously minimising contact with people I deem vulnerable in my family. On the other hand, it has made me realise the value of family and the importance of being there for each other because we only live once,” she said.

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in the country, about 15 health workers have been infected with the virus in Nyeri County. Many others have contracted the disease in the line of duty countrywide.

“The biggest challenge I have faced this far is stigmatisation. The fact that I work in a ward that has Covid-19 patients makes people stay away from me,” Ms Mbuga confesses.

The constant fear, she said, was contracting the disease despite doing everything to protect herself and fear of treating patients in a way that stigmatises them because they have turned positive.

“Handling patients is scary and my department is sensitive. Most of our babies come with fevers and cough which are cardinal signs of Covid-19,” she said, adding that whenever she goes home healthy without any symptoms, she counts it as a blessing.

But she does not limit her worries to contracting the virus, rather not affording treatment for the disease she is trying to keep at bay.

With no medical covers, a majority of doctors have raised concern, saying they cannot afford the services they offer.

A doctor who requested anonymity to avoid victimisation told the Nation that those on contract employment did not have insurance cover for any kind of disease for themselves and their dependents.

"What we have only covers the bed if one gets admitted ... recently I was sick and had to pay Sh17,000 for the treatment, money I did not have and had to borrow. Things are really bad and I’m sad,"  the doctor said.

When it became apparent that the virus was spreading its tentacles fast in the country, the government advised elderly people with pre-existing conditions to take leave or work from home.

Older doctors and nurses left the hospitals as the young ones were picked for training by the Ministry of Health.

“Having been out of medical school for less than five years, the life I had anticipated for myself and the one that Covid-19 has made the reality are like night and day,” said Dr William Muriuki, a medical officer at the referral hospital.

He said the pandemic has forced him to lead a life of isolation since he is often interacting with positive patients and he is at a higher risk of contracting the virus.

“Since then, I have withdrawn myself from my parents, friends and family,” he said.

Dr Muriuki, alongside his colleagues, started a community outreach project dubbed Afya Mtaani that sensitises residents about the pandemic and other health-related issues.

“We volunteer our time to ensure people are aware (of the disease). We are not just trained healthcare workers but everyday Kenyans working to protect themselves and make their homes, churches and communities safer,” he said.

Dr Muriuki counts himself lucky as he hasn't gotten ill and has no dependents that would require him to pay for hospital bills without a medical cover.

Counties have not remitted cash to their respective National Hospital Insurance Fund cover.

Central region Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Union Secretary-General Gor Goody said that most of the health workers do not have comprehensive insurance to cover them and, when they lose their lives, there is no compensation.

"We are giving services we cannot afford. We are scared of our lives because we do not have sufficient PPE, insurance and properly equipped ICUs," she said, adding that the government needs to protect health care workers in the frontline now more than ever before.

She further said that with dilapidated infrastructure in hospitals and resource incapacitated, hospitals are mere death traps for both patients and health workers.

imugo@ke.nationmedia.com

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