By Mutahi Kagwe and Siddharth Chatterjee
The COVID-19 or the new coronavirus is different. In this virus, we have an enemy that is invisible and sometimes deadly, and the task is harder.
About a century ago, the Spanish flu pandemic killed an estimated 50 million people, more than the combined total casualties of World Wars I and II. Our understanding of disease transmission and treatments is far ahead of our position in 1918, but this new coronavirus has shown the limits of our ability to deal with major disease outbreaks.
Advice to protect ourselves is clear: wash your hands well, and often; self-isolate, if you feel unwell; maintain social distance, by avoiding crowded and public spaces; and, if your symptoms worsen, contact medical services. Only by following this advice, rigorously, can we hope to stem the tide of new infections.
For now, however, the virus is spreading and, on the frontline, between a nervous public and those responsible for directing national responses, the healthcare workers, on whom we all depend, can easily be forgotten.
During the Ebola outbreak, six years ago, the World Health Organisation estimated that health workers were between 21 and 32 times more likely, to be infected with Ebola than people in the general adult population. In West Africa, more than 350 health care workers died, while battling Ebola.
Doctors, nurses, carers and paramedics, around the world, are facing an unprecedented workload in overstretched health facilities — with no end in sight. They are working in stressful and frightening work environments, not just because the virus is little understood, but because, in most settings, they are under-protected, overworked and vulnerable to infection themselves.
The risk to doctors, nurses and others on the frontlines, has become plain: Italy has seen at least 18 doctors with coronavirus die; and Spain reported that more than 3,900 health care workers have become infected.
We need a whole-of-society resolve that we will not let our frontline soldiers become patients. We must do everything to support health workers, who, despite their own well-founded fears, are stepping, directly, into Covid-19’s path to aid the afflicted and help halt the virus’s spread.
In sub-Saharan Africa, as elsewhere, pressure on the healthcare workforce will intensify in the coming months. A recent survey of National Nurses United (NNU) members in the US, revealed that only 30 percent believed their healthcare organization had sufficient inventory of personal protective equipment (PPE), for responding to a surge event.
In some parts of France and Italy, hospitals have run out of masks, forcing doctors to examine and treat coronavirus patients, without adequate protection.
The situation in poorer countries will be worse; demand has far outstripped supplies.
In Kenya, to enable health workers to do their jobs safely, we will dedicate resources to providing gowns, gloves, and medical-grade face masks, and also arm them with the latest knowledge and information on the virus.
As partners, the government of Kenya, the United Nations and the international community are determined to explore every avenue, to ensure all the possible support for the health workers.
Evidence indicates that the coronavirus can survive on some hard surfaces, for up to three days, but it is also easily killed by simple disinfectants. Health workers need the back-up of ancillary staff, to increase the frequency and rigour of cleaning light switches, countertops, handrails, elevator buttons and doorknobs. Such measures can give much-needed reassurance to stressed care-givers and protect the public, too.
Like soldiers, health workers also face considerable mental stress. It is often forgotten that as humans, they feel the sorrow of loss, when their patients succumb to the virus. They, too, have families, and so will also, naturally, be fearful that the virus might reach those they love most.
Whenever possible, we will ensure that healthcare workers have access to counselling services, so they can recharge, before moving on again, given that this could be a long, drawn-out battle.
We need to also use accurate information, as a means of defence. Misinformation can cause public panic, suspicion and unrest. It can disrupt the availability of food and vital supplies and divert resources – such as face masks – away from health workers and other frontline workers, whose need is greatest.
COVID-19 will not be the last dangerous microbe we see. The heroism, dedication and selflessness of medical staff, allow the rest of us a degree of reassurance that we will overcome this virus.
We must give these health workers all the support they need, to do their jobs, be safe and stay alive. We will need them, when the next pandemic strikes.
Mutahi Kagwe is the Minister of Health in Kenya; and Siddharth Chatterjee is the United Nations Resident Coordinator to Kenya.