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Opinion & Analysis

Cholera outbreak response disturbing

Cholera patients being attended to at Kenyatta National Hospital on July 19, 2017. PHOTO | ANTHONY OMUYA | NMG
Cholera patients being attended to at Kenyatta National Hospital on July 19, 2017. PHOTO | ANTHONY OMUYA | NMG 

The news that two Cabinet secretaries had been admitted in hospital due to cholera due to hotel food that they ate may have come as a shock to the nation.

However, the issue of cholera in hotels and restaurants had been in the news a few weeks earlier. The response by Government to this report has been swift.

First was the public debate between the national and county government on which of them was responsible for the disease outbreak.

Secondly, a directive was issued cancelling all medical certificates that had been issued to all those who handle food. They were then directed to go for fresh examinations.

Thirdly, some hospitals were subsequently closed for not complying with set health standards.

The media has been awash with reports of responses to the cholera reports and concerns. Are these actions justified? Are they necessary? Are they sufficient?

It is important that some action was taken. However, they are signs of a reactive policy approach.

One in which policy makers are woken up from some slumber by a crisis, take some palliative action and go back to their routine as soon as the crisis recedes waiting for the next occurrence.

Sadly, this has been the country’s methodology of dealing with critical national issues.

Cholera is as a result of consuming contamination foods and drinks. Its occurrence is normally evidence of one having eaten food or drank water which is contaminated.

There are many sources of the dirt to contaminate food or water. Basic hygiene is solution to cholera concerns.

Reviewing the events leading up to and following the reports of the cholera cases of the two cabinet secretaries, one wonders where our knowledge and focus of basic hygiene features.

At no point in time did policy makers address their mid to the root cause of the problem. Instead focus was on cancellation of medical certificates. Why were these being cancelled? Is it because they had outlived their usefulness? Or that there was doubt on how they were acquired?

Or was there a new discovery that made the certificates acquired incapable of dealing with? Just cancellation without honest diagnosis of the problem would never be a solution.

Secondly the existence of two levels of government, national and county, was not intended to provide an opportunity for buck-passing but for greater service delivery.

Despite being distinct, the two levels are expected to collaborate since they are interdependent.

The experience from the responses in the reported incidences of cholera shows the road we still must travel to ensure harmony in the manner in which functions between the national and county governments are performed.

The lack of hygiene and reactive response is symptomatic of what ails our public policy processes.

I heard several conversations alluding to the fact that the disease was now being given public attention because it had struck in the high-end parts of the city.

That as long as the complaints were about poor sanitation and housing in informal settlements and road side kiosks, very little attention was being paid.

From this, some argued that it is only when the mighty are affected or the scale too big that public policy makers pay attention.

The approach is one that we seem to have perfected in our response to disasters. Our disaster response is event-driven.

During my primary school days, teachers spent a lot of time inculcating in us the discipline of washing our hands every time we came from the toilets, washing fruits before eating, keeping short nails amongst other basic hygiene practices.

Is it that the county government is not doing enough to ensure safe sanitation and health standards.

What of the National Government? How comes in most cases there is turf wars with each level of government claiming that a responsibility is there, yet in this instance there was no such fights, only efforts to pass responsibility to the other level?

One does not need to be an expert to know that the focus on hygienic conditions in hotels and eating establishments will fizzle out in a very short while.

Before it does, it is necessary that we realise that effects of poor policies or non-implementation of policies affects all in society.

The solution is not to overreact whenever a disaster strikes, but to consistently do the right things.

COLLINS ODOTE lectures at the University of Nairobi

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