Rural time-bomb remains as Kenya reacts faster than UK to coronavirus

By David Whitehouse

Posted on Wednesday, 25 March 2020 10:01
A worker walks outside the coronavirus isolation facility at the Mbagathi Hospital in Nairobi
A worker walks outside the coronavirus isolation facility at the Mbagathi Hospital in Nairobi, Kenya March 15, 2020. REUTERS

Faith Simiyu, a law lecturer at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya, was pleasantly surprised by the levels of preparation for coronavirus that she found at Nairobi airport.

When she travelled to the UK, it was a different story.

Simiyu is studying for a PhD in community health at Cardiff University.

Kenyans in Nairobi are wearing gloves and masks at every turn, she says. Screening machines to check temperatures were widespread at points of entry to Kenya.

At Heathrow, she could count the number of people wearing masks or gloves on the fingers of one hand.

READ MORE Kenya, Ethiopia battle with Coronavirus

Kenya went into lockdown as soon as the first coronavirus case was disclosed. Simiyu contrasts this with Cardiff, where students waited anxiously for the university to close. “It has taken about four to five weeks for the UK government to act,” she says.

Kenya’s readiness is demonstrated by measures taken to provide public information on how to stay safe including washing hands, having sanitizers in public places such as banks and churches, self-isolation and banks relying on the M-Pesa mobile money transfer platform.

  • “These and many more examples reinforce Kenya’s preparedness and response,” she says.

READ MORE Coronavirus: 5 economies to watch as the impact spreads

The country currently has 15 cases of coronavirus and no deaths. Simiyu wanted to return to Kenya because she thought it would be safer than the UK, but decided that having to go via London would have been too risky.

Rural Dangers

Africa is better equipped to deal with outbreaks of disease, having already experienced HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, cholera and Ebola, Simiyu says. States in Africa have responded to coronavirus with greater urgency than the World Health Organization showed over the most recent outbreaks of Ebola, she says.

  • Out of 54 African countries, more than 40 now have the ability to test for COVID-19. This is up from only two during the early stages of the outbreak in China, she says.

READ MORE To stop the COVID-19 pandemic countries need to look beyond their own borders

Health provision in rural areas remains a concern. Simiyu recently conducted fieldwork in a remote, marginalised area of Kenya. The community was trying to raise funds to buy water dispensers for children who were getting infected by water-borne diseases, and were struggling to raise the required amount of $9 a time.

  • Most African countries have been unable to meet the thresholds for budget spending on health signed in the Abuja Declaration of 2001, she says.
  • “And where health resources are allocated, priority has been given to urban areas, thereby leaving the rural communities vulnerable.”
  • “Funds are needed to help strengthen early detection and responses by public health systems at the community level,” she says. “This is especially so in the rural areas of Africa that are already ravaged by poverty, inadequate access to healthcare.”

Simiyu also is concerned about Kenyans working in the informal sector and the unemployed.  These people might not be able to self-isolate, as isolation “means having no food at the table.”  These people may not be able to buy hand sanitizers, she says.

READ MORE Coronavirus: “We’ve gone from looming threat to looming disaster”

Prevention is better than cure, Simiyu says. This requires investment in early response and detection mechanisms such as labs. The Democratic Republic of Congo, she argues, provides lessons in forward thinking, with tents being used to create isolation wards in case coronavirus takes a grip.

Bottom Line: Prevention is of the essence as Africa’s rural health systems won’t be strong enough to deal with coronavirus.


Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options