We must take care of frontline health workers to defeat Covid-19

We must take care of frontline health workers to defeat Covid-19

May 13, 2020 COLUMNS by admin
Proctor & Gamble Kenya Commercial Director Simon Mwangi (left) hands over 16,000 sanitary towels to Amref Group Programmes Director Mette Kinoti. Photo: Vernottee Esendi/WoN.

Vernottee Esendi


And Robert Breen


Nyakundi hurriedly walks home where his wife, a teacher at a private school- who is “staying home’’ as per the government’s directive, ushers him into the house just before the curfew sets in, to with relief. The 10-month old baby on the sofa casts a spell of a bewitching smile, welcoming dad home after a 12-hour day at a private health institution in Mombasa County. Although healthcare workers are exempted from the curfew, his shift, which starts at 6 am ends at 6 pm.

He deliberately ignores the shining smile and heads for the bathroom for a shower. The baby bursts the heavens with a deafening cry, wondering why he has been ignored.

This has been Nyakundi’s experience since the horrendous Covid-19 pandemic cornered and colonised Kenya from March 13, 2020 when the first positive case was confirmed. With the numbers of infections of the virus soaring every day, and Mombasa being one of the hotspots trailing Nairobi, he understands too well that sacrificing the smile of the baby is saving his life.

The bathroom has been his first stop for weeks now. He has to take a shower and leave all the clothes there before joining the family.

The pharmacist says that although the hospital, where he works has not received any Covid-19 positive case, the risk is ‘very high and expensive’.

“Hundreds of patients trickle in every day. Most of them or the accompanying persons have to pass by the pharmacy for drugs. I don’t know their status. I, therefore, have to protect my family though it hurts to ignore them when I arrive home,” he says.

Nyakundi, who requested that we only identify him with one name for fear of repercussions- is one of the health workers in the country who are at the frontline fighting or ready to do so to stop the spread of Covid-19, but he is also worried about exposing his family.

His concern is not unfounded.

At least 93 per cent of healthcare workers in Kenya lack sufficient protecting equipment as the country grapples to combat Covid-19, according to a recent study by the Kenya Legal & Ethical Issues Network on HIV and AIDS (KELIN Kenya).

The report, dubbed the Kenya healthcare workers level of preparedness in response to Covid-19 survey report, also indicates that 82 per cent of the healthcare workers are forced to re-use protective equipment due to irregular supply – a factor that is exposing them to the same virus the country and the globe are working to contain.

Even as health workers in public and private facilities put their lives in the line to save Kenyans, their families are also at risk due to this exposure at work.

The KELIN Kenya study established that 94 per cent of the 601 healthcare workers are not provided with alternative accommodation or isolation to minimise the risk to their families.

According to the report, which was carried out between April 9 and 20, 2020, at least 93 per cent of the healthcare workers reported they do not have enough personal protective equipment (PPE). Eighty-two percent are forced to re-use protective equipment due to irregular supply.

While 97 per cent of the respondents said they are at risk of contracting the virus, 98 per cent have not been tested for Covid-19.

Further, the working environment presents risk of the spread of the virus even in the public hospitals. It is notable that big business like supermarkets are controlling the number of customers who can be in the premises at one given time to ensure social distancing. Nyakundi agrees with the report’s findings that 64 per cent of the health facilities lack staff to regulate the flow of clients.

In terms of cleanliness, a majority of the health facilities have good waste management equipment, but only two out of five are regularly cleaned and disinfected. Furthermore, four out of five of the respondents reported that changing and rest rooms are not cleaned and disinfected regularly. This is particularly risky based on studies that the virus can stay on surfaces for up to nine days.

This situation puts the healthcare workers in the country at risk, when the sector is highly stressed. Kenya has one doctor for every 6,355 people and about 8.3 nurses per 10,000 people. The World Health Organisation recommends one doctor for every 1,000 people and one nurse per 400 people.

As of May 8, 2020, at least 34 healthcare workers in the country had contracted Covid-19. As the number of new infections of coronavirus disease keep rising, taking care of the healthcare workers is paramount. Developed countries like the US have reported more than 9,000 infections and lost dozens of lives of healthcare workers despite their sophisticated systems.  Infection against the very first line of defence put the country at a great risk as this will eat into the strained labour force.

With countries like Senegal in West Africa selling testing kits at less than one US dollar, testing of health workers should be a priority. Protective gear and a clean and regularly sanitised environment would put the worries of the healthcare workers at bay and allow them to focus on saving lives.

While the Senate has come up with the Pandemic Response and Management Bill, 2020, it is critical to align the Ministry of Health policies and other regulations to ensure the safety and welfare of the foot soldiers of pandemics are also covered to reduce their vulnerability.

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