WRONG PRIORITIES

Covid-19 crisis underscores years of underfunding health

Nearly 60 years after Independence, health services are out of reach for many people. Those with money go overseas.

In Summary

• It is clear our public health system was creaking for years and what did we do about it? 

• Covid-19 has shown how poorly we have invested in this sector and our wrong priorities.

Jerusha Malini, a nurse at KNH, is vaccinated against Covid-19 on March 5, 2021.
Jerusha Malini, a nurse at KNH, is vaccinated against Covid-19 on March 5, 2021.
Image: FREDRICK OMONDI

The latest surge in Covid-19 infections and the crisis we are dealing with has demonstrated years of underinvestment in the health sector. We must make a massive investment in our social services system when we get through this.

I have been watching depressing news every night of how our hospitals are on the brink, even as the few medical workers race to save our relatives, in the biggest health crisis to hit us.

Because of few hospital beds and even fewer ICU facilities in both public and private hospitals, news has been awash with reports of hospitals demanding shocking amounts of deposits to admit patients with Covid-19.

And why the oxygen shortage?

A few days ago, a close friend came down with Covid-19, and the only thing that kept him awake at night was what to do in case his condition worsened. This was during the week that some hospitals were turning patients away as they no longer had beds.

It was the week the Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua said, “People are waiting for others to die to get a bed."

While the world is battling the crisis, we should not find any solace in knowing that many others are also going through pain and death.

It is clear our public health system was creaking for years. Covid-19 has shown how poorly we have invested in this sector a.

And because we have not expanded enough the the infrastructure and the human personnel needed, many family members, friends and countrymen and dying when they could have been saved if there was one extra bed and one extra nurse.

A survey from last year said we have only 537 ICU beds in a population of nearly 53 million people. Most of the intensive care facilities are in Nairobi and Mombasa, meaning that if you badly need an ICU bed in a rural area, you are mostly not going to get one.

The WHO estimates that around 14 per cent of Covid-19 patients will require hospitalisation and oxygen support. And sometime if you were to get a bed, there are cases when there are not medical workers to provide service.

And that is just with the surge in Covid-19 cases. There would have been other patients being treated for other ailments and the scramble could not get any worse.

And while the intensive care beds are expensive to instal and run, it is just not a case of these facilities, but rather the entire investment in the health sector. In many public hospitals, ambulances don’t have fuel, labs lack reagents and health workers often lack kits they need for the job.

What would it cost to establish oxygen generation units in all the referral and Level 5 hospitals?

Last year, when the pandemic hit, some Kenyans proved that we could manufacture our own beds and ventilators. What if we focused on such efforts to improve our health infrastructure, thereby cutting costs of importation?

We are a nation of leading global athletes. Do we need to consider health policies that leverage on healthy eating and exercising as a meant to preventing diseases?

In many parts of the country, the main things that people want are basic services – water, health, infrastructure, electricity and education. These are often out of reach.

We have invested billions in infrastructure since President Mwai Kibaki came to power. And that’s good. But it is not right that nearly 60 years since we became a republic, health services are out of reach for many of our people.

The writer is a public affairs commentator; [email protected]   

(Edited by V. Graham)