Experts have expressed concern about the East Africa region’s preparedness to tackle the next pandemic, saying most of the lessons from the devastating Covid-19 experience had not been fully implemented.
The experts, who converged on Wednesday, November 22, at the Nation Leadership Forum, questioned whether the region’s leadership and financing structures are effective at managing future pandemics.
Dr Sultani Matendechero, the deputy director-general for Health, explained that another pandemic is likely to happen soon, owing to rise in cases of zoonotic diseases, globalisation, antimicrobial resistance and climate change.
“We have taken lessons from what happened during Covid-19 and have started taking deliberate steps to increase our compliance and ability to implement regulations. We want to limit the international spread of disease without disrupting trade and travel,” said Dr Matendechero, expressing hope in the plans.
He explained that Kenya is involved in the process of developing The Pandemic Accord.
It sits on the Intergovernmental Negotiating Body and is keen to present texts on equity. This ensures that the process is fair, just and cognisant of the circumstances of developing countries in keeping with the concept of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities.
Kenya, he said, also seeks to increase finances towards pandemic prevention, preparedness and response, handling effects of the pandemic to its health system to ensure a quicker recovery and investing in data and knowledge sharing and data security.
However, Prof Shem Otoi, Professor of Statistics at Great Lakes University of Kenya, said ineffective systems, inadequate commodities and corruption hinder the country from preparing adequately to combat the next pandemic.
“During Covid-19 period, we realised that in the lake region economic bloc, only county referral hospitals could test and refer patients. Before that, we didn’t have testing capacity for Covid-19 samples, and had to fly them to South Africa for testing. Other counties had a testing quota where they would test about 20 samples per day, with a long turnaround time of 24 hours,” said Prof Otoi.
He went on: “This meant that an infected person was allowed to interact with others, spreading the infection, before the required interventions were made. Vaccine availability was also a challenge as was the shortage of protective personal equipment.”
The solution, he posed, would be to manufacture vaccines within the country, which would be a nightmare because of high taxes and trade barriers that repel investors. Should the next pandemic hit today, he opined, there would be an oxygen crisis, and health workers may find it difficult to detect infectious diseases. These challenges, posed Prof Otoi, are because of deteriorating health systems.
Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union(KMPDU) Secretary-General Davji Atellah said Kenya’s failure to invest in manpower and facilities hinders its ability to respond to a future pandemic.
In 2020, this lack of investment manifested through the lack of protective personal equipment and blame games between the national and county governments. It is further proven by the continued migration of healthcare workers to the Global North.
“Over the past five years, out of the 5,000 medical students who graduated, only 1,000 have been employed. Of the over 1,300 who graduated in the past year, only a few have gotten jobs,” he said.
During the campaigns, President William Ruto promised to hire 20,000 healthcare workers in his first 100 days in office, but failed to uphold their promise.
Dr Matendechero the government has prioritised four areas of investment, including human resources, health facilities and legal frameworks for their protection.
“We increased the number of health workers after increasing the number of training facilities. Now, we have challenges in absorbing them. In the meantime, we have taken on more than 100,000 Community Health Promoter to deal with public health issues before they get out of hand. This will boost early warning systems,” said Dr Matendechero.
On vaccines, he said the Pharmacy and Poisons Board was working to achieve maturity Level Three status in the country so that the vaccines Kenya produced can be used in the region.
Commenting on the same, Nation Media Group Chief Executive Officer Stephen Gitagama said that “if the world was better prepared for pandemics, the harsh realities of the pandemic could have been minimised.”
“Many lost their lives and many more live with the outcomes. The dust has settled but the statistics on death and suffering is a testament of the magnitude of the virus,” said Mr Gitagama.
According to the World Health Organisation, there were 10.8 millionCovid-19 cases on the continent, with 228,738 deaths, and 9.8 million recoveries. Africa accounted for about 757 million cases reported globally and 6.8 million deaths.