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State, counties should build on Covid-19 successes to realise UHC

By Gichu Kihoro | September 9th 2020

Every dark cloud, sages say, has a silver lining.

It has been some six long months of anxiety, mass hospitalisation and hundreds of deaths since the first case of the infamous coronavirus was reported in the country.

After months of battling the coronavirus, the government’s holistic approach to the pandemic is paying off. As the curve is flattening, meaning that Kenya is registering fewer new cases of infection on a day-to-day basis, we have a unique window of opportunity to bolster our healthcare system for years to come.

The coronavirus pandemic should not divert President Uhuru Kenyatta’s attention away from his plans of extending universal health coverage to our entire country. If anything, the current health emergency further strengthened public desire for its implementation.

By the end of last month, serious restrictive measures on movement combined with the cautious and partial opening up of our economy had managed to curb the spread of the virus in some of the most challenging urban areas.

After successfully containing the hotspots of Nairobi and Mombasa, however, the battle against the coronavirus is moving to the countryside. The healthcare provision capacity in these areas is exactly what Uhuru has been hoping to bolster since he first announced the roll-out of universal health coverage in 2018.

In his recent videoconference with leading government officials and health experts, Uhuru reiterated that instead of symptomatic reactions, his government is prioritising structural policies that are both long-term and transformative.

Guided by the lessons that the rapid escalation of the Covid-19 pandemic offered, the President should prepare Kenya’s healthcare system for decisively battling future health emergencies.

Focussing on health provision in rural areas is the most appropriate next step for the government, one that the arrival of the pandemic might have momentarily delayed, but which has featured high on its agenda.

As our capital and other large cities are now equipped with isolation units, extra hospital beds and analytical labs, similar infrastructure must be built in the countryside too so as to avoid the proliferation of new cases there and the eventual re-introduction of the virus to areas that have already recovered.

As part of the President’s Big Four agenda, the government promised to improving the quality of our citizens’ health and safety on multiple fronts. Besides increasing our counties’ capacity to react to a public health situation by means of infrastructure development, prevention has been at the centre of Uhuru’s policy.

The goal of achieving affordable healthcare countrywide is inextricably linked to the availability of quality housing. With no access to clean water, basic sanitation services and indeed durable housing structures, many of our fellow citizens in the countryside are still at great risk of infection from the coronavirus and any other infectious diseases for that matter.

Current policy plans of extending universal healthcare to the whole of the country could not come at a better time. Making sure that people have access to check-ups and basic treatment is crucial after the pandemic has eroded the financial safety nets of so many families in our country.

Paying for healthcare is still expensive for many of us and a longer period of treatment often eats into our family savings. A government-sponsored and sustained universal system of healthcare would ensure the standardized availability of medicine and basic services at a fixed price.

In fact, the government already conducted a successful trial version of such a system in late 2019 during which approximately 3.2 million residents of Kisumu, Machakos, Isiolo and Nyeri had access to subsidised services in public health facilities.

Of course, our counties are not completely unprotected while Uhuru and his team gears up to implement this ambitious project. With great foresight, the President started discussions with the devolved county administrations in early June to make sure that a primary line of defence against the coronavirus was available everywhere.

As a result, each county was required to set up at least 300 beds to deal with what could be an eventual outbreak in rural areas. As current numbers show a slight increase in new infections in the countryside, the President’s expectations seem to have been confirmed.

While preparing for the containment of the first wave of the outbreak certainly left our government preoccupied, their attention to long-term trends did not disappear. Conscious of the multifaceted nature of building a comprehensive healthcare system, Uhuru has been closely monitoring developments in the countryside. With a moment to breathe, he should not plan to stop and rest. 

-Mr Kihoro is a Data and Research expert. [email protected]

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