By Dr Stellah W Bosire
Doreen Adisa, Marian Awuor, Ndambuki Mboloi.
These are not just names; they are healthcare workers who in the past few months have succumbed to COVID-19. Their uniqueness? They contracted COVID-19 while in the line of duty.
Dr Adisa was an obstetrician and gynaecologist aged 38, a mother of two; Marian Awuor, a nurse at Homabay Sub-county who delivered her infant while critically ill, and Dr Mboloi, a medical doctor specialist on the respiratory system, all succumbed due to complications of COVID-19. COVID-19 does not discriminate!
Their lives cheapened by the callous way in which the duty bearer was irresponsible as to the extent to ensure that these frontline healthcare workers were protected.
As of now, more than 700 health care workers have been infected with COVID-19, a number that is rising daily. Healthcare workers’ labour in Kenya is synonymous with martyrdom. After all, it’s often referred to as a calling!
To have chronically continued to expose those who took an oath to protect Kenyans because of a chronic shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) i.e. masks, gowns, gloves, and respirators, is a crime that is pre-meditated and also a human right violation.
The lack of PPEs is, ironically, happening when there should be plenty. Kenya has received multiple PPE donations from Jack Ma, a Chinese entrepreneur, the United States Embassy in Kenya, the World Bank, among others.
Recent developments indicate massive corruption involving senior government officers who sold the very same life-saving equipment that would have preserved the lives of our caregivers. These developments go against the government’s own commitment to protecting health care workers.
“It is the priority of the government to protect health workers from COVID-19 given their high risk of infection. We will be applying international guidelines and protocols to ensure that health workers are protected from the disease,” Dr Rashid Aman, the Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) at the Ministry of Health has previously been quoted saying.
With these conditions, many of the primary caregivers are forced to improvise – and not in the most sterile conditions possible – as they have traditionally done.
A doctor in Homa Bay county is on record as having performed multiple Caesarean deliveries while reusing the same cloth mask; going against the grain of infection prevention where operations are to be performed in the most sterile environments with the most sterile equipment and, therefore, putting the lives of the patients as well as those of other frontline healthcare workers in danger.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how unprioritized the health workforce, the backbone of the ecosystem of healthcare, is. It has overemphasized the weak underbelly of the Kenyan health care system.
To think that the last two major industrial strikes by nurses and doctors that cumulatively lasted 300 days would have given the government ample time to strengthen healthcare systems is to be over-ambitious. If anything, there had been continued fragmentation of the system with the deprioritization of the healthcare workforce as evidenced by the shortage in the numbers of the frontline workers, poor working conditions, poor remunerations as well as under financing.
Since case zero of COVID-19 in March 2020, there have been a number of threats of industrial actions premised on the chronic issues and grievances that healthcare workers have raised over the last few years: exhaustion, poor working conditions, poor remuneration, lack of pay and, now, lack of PPEs.
Unlike the rest of the workforce, healthcare services are not performed from home, a privilege enjoyed by some. The other privilege that frontline healthcare workers cannot enjoy is that of access to high-quality healthcare if they are to need it.
Nurse Marian is an example of how our healthcare system failed her. She needed a ventilator, there was none in Homa Bay, necessitating her referral to Kisii county, many kilometres away, to seek care. This worsened her then already worse health condition as an overpromising government failed to keep its end of the bargain of implementing the Kshs 3 billion meant for special allowances that would have revamped the health insurance schemes of caregivers.
There are also the thousands of healthcare workers who have gone for months without pay yet they are expected to show up for work in an overwhelmed system that is a danger to their lives.
Dr Stellah W Bosire is an accomplished health professional and a global public health expert working at the intersection of health and human rights.
This work is supported by the Heinrich-Böll Foundation.