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Ten lessons we have learnt from pandemic

By Suleiman Shahbal | May 12th 2020

 I have to admit that I didn’t take corona seriously at first. I lived through the Mars and SARS epidemics and they were not a big deal. What was the big deal about corona?  Four or five people dying from any disease is not a big deal in Africa, after all, more people die of malaria every day. Health CS Mutahi Kagwe’s daily reports were hardly alarming and sounded academic. Then we started seeing Italians and Americans die like flies. We saw their world-class hospitals overwhelmed. Then bodies started piling up and reality set in.

Mombasa was the first county that reacted immediately and set the trend for the rest of the country. Governor Hassan Ali Joho was at the forefront of the coming battle with innovative ideas to combat the crisis. Clearly we were in uncharted territory and many things were purely experimental. We learnt 10 key lessons.

The first lesson was that any new disease comes with stigma. This stigma was similar to that of HIV. Stigma is a product of ignorance and a failure of communication. People are scared of things that they don’t understand.

Second, people have failed to understand why testing is critical. We have neither the means nor the capacity to do universal testing. Perhaps we should do testing based on controlled sampling. Testing came with another expensive consequence – forced quarantine. People who can barely afford food are forced to go into quarantine and then face an expensive bill after that. Some of the quarantine centres were dirty, the food was poor and patients didn’t get medicines and could not understand that they were purely under observation. Governor Joho realised this problem and made quarantine free.

Third, the lesson from Italy was that mixing corona patients with regular hospital patients increased the risk to patients, doctors, nurses and the public. Mombasa was the first to set up a special quarantine centre at the Technical University of Mombasa.

Fourth, shutdown and curfews are still seen as a punishment. Last week the Old Town in Mombasa was placed under total shutdown. Old Town was shut down after a three-hour notice. We realised that the closure of markets would lead to an immediate shortage of food, medicines and water. This is further complicated by the fact that many families cannot afford to stock up for the long haul. We are neither prepared nor equipped.

Fifth, cultural behaviour increases the challenges of social distancing. How do you close the mosques and churches?  If the Masjid Al Haram in Mecca and the Vatican is closed what was so special about the neighbourhood mosque and church that they could not be closed too? Logic should prevail, but people do not adapt so quickly.

Sixth, we are not prepared as a country to provide food and essential products to millions of people. Who is deserving? Who needs help? How do we reach them and distribute without causing riots? What is the right food? How frequently? In Mombasa there are people who insist on rice and others who reject rice and ask for ugali. That’s life.

Seventh, our medics are not equipped. Not only is there a shortage of staff, but many were not trained to deal with such an infectious disease, neither did they have the right equipment and protection. Yet Mombasa has an army of volunteer Public Health Workers that could be mobilised to educate, assist, treat and reduce the burden on the hospitals. Clearly we need to invest more in these volunteers.

Eighth, in times of crisis it becomes critical to unite all people, irrespective of political differences, behind a common purpose. The governor achieved this very well.

Ninth, the value of public private partnership became self evident. Unfortunately, the Kenyan Public doesn’t trust the government too much. The business community is reluctant to contribute directly to the government. Joho, sensing this, created a committee led by respected community figures and raised millions of shillings to support his efforts. Food distribution is going on daily late into the night. As usual, people will complain, but there are more grateful than disgruntled people.

Tenth, the decentralisation of medical services has made many counties improve their medical services. This crisis will highlight the weaknesses and will compel the counties to improve. Consequently, more national funds should be allocated to the counties for medical services.

The 10 lessons learned should lead to new policy decisions and ensure that the country is prepared for such eventualities.


Mr Shahbal is chairman of Gulf Group of Companies. [email protected]



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