2020 has taken each one of us aback. COVID-19 struck and disrupted health, school, businesses, travel, play, prayer, and livelihoods. We have had to make decisions that affect our health in a way only seen and done in health facilities. While going out to the shop, we have to wear a mask and sanitize and the body temperature had better be right. COVID-19 has reminded us basic facts – that we must first secure our health and then we can deal with other facets of our lives. Public health is a pre-requisite to social, economic and political stability.
Gradually, and gladly so, the lockdown measures are easing. One major move to ease the lockdown is the announcement by the Cabinet Secretary of Education Prof. George Magoha on the re-opening of schools. Great news indeed. There are health risks related to schools being closed. For some children, schools are nutrition centers that also offer psychosocial support. For some girls, being out of school can mean greater risk of sexual exploitation, early pregnancy, forced marriage and HIV infection. The longer a girl is out of school, the less likely that she will return. Education, like health, narrows inequalities, is a driver for sustainable development, breaks down cycles of poverty and opens up a world of possibilities.
As COVID-19 fades away, the aftermath will remain with us for years to come as intensive efforts to find therapeutics, treatment and a vaccine continue. When Kenya was put in lock down, access to healthcare services dwindled. People were afraid of going to health facilities when they fell ill for fear of having COVID-19 and for fear of related stigma. This has resulted in the possibility of increased incidence of other killer diseases such as HIV, TB and malaria presenting fresh and unprecedented health challenges.
A modelling report by the Stop TB Partnership indicates that as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, global TB incidence and deaths in 2021 would increase to levels last seen in between 2013 and 2016 respectively – implying a setback of at least 5 to 8 years in the fight against TB.
We must see the fight against COVID-19 and other diseases such as HIV, TB and malaria as one fight. Measures to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on HIV, TB and malaria should involve a combination of intensive community engagement and maintaining awareness of the importance of services to defeat the three diseases while emerging from the COVID-19 response. Programs must identify and address gender inequalities in their design and response. One approach is to meaningfully engage women, supporting primary healthcare services needed to reduce child and maternal mortality; and supporting caregivers, who are mostly women, caring for those who fall ill from COVID-19 or other causes. Gender barriers to health must be removed.
Further, as we tackle COVID-19, health advocates, partners and our Government must ensure that the response to COVID-19 includes lessons learned from the fight against HIV, TB and malaria. Human rights be protected; stigma and discrimination must be addressed. The available COVID-19 resources be shared equitably. When treatment and a vaccine is found, it should be available to everyone, one everywhere for free. So that no one is left behind.
Lastly, COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic. The next pandemic must find Kenya better prepared, ready with strong and resilient health systems with a strong focus on primary healthcare founded on strong community health systems. A rights-based, equitable, people-centered system that is conscious of other factors that affect health and wellbeing such as climate change, food and housing.
To achieve these successes, I urge the Government to invest additional domestic resources for health to build back better for a healthier future for all Kenyans. That health is one of the pillars of the Big 4 agenda is a sign of President Kenyatta’s commitment to health. Health is an investment in human capital and a key factor to the development of our country.
I urge for efficient, effective and affordable healthcare for every Kenyan, wherever they are.
Maurine Murenga is the Executive Director of Lean On Me Foundation