As the fear virus continues to grip us all, there is just one hope we might learn from it, and for all the lives we lose this year, finally move to correct our nation’s biggest killer.
For COVID-19 is a respiratory disease. In its severe form, it triggers pneumonia. And we know pneumonia. We have a lot of it, far more than is normal. Indeed, one in every 80 pneumonia deaths in the world for children under five happens in Kenya, where our population is around 154th of the world population.
Put short, a child is twice as likely to die from pneumonia in Kenya than in the rest of the world, in more than 10,000 deaths a year among our small children. Nor do our pneumonia deaths stop with the under-5s.
According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), since 2015, pneumonia has been our top killer disease across all age groups.
That’s abnormal. It isn’t the same as in other countries. But the reason is that we do lung damage on an almost unprecedented scale, by using charcoal and wood to cook in the home. We do it more than most of Africa, more than almost anywhere, and the results are catastrophic.
For, a single hour for a child, and mother too, over that indoor cooking fire does the same damage to the lungs as smoking 400 cigarettes, research has shown. So, many of our children and young mothers are lung damaged as if they were smoking 800 to 1,200 cigarettes a day. No wonder it kills many of them.
Sadly, our Health ministry doesn’t care. It has done almost nothing to promote clean cooking in Kenya.
A Nairobi conference on clean cooking late last year brought government guests and global engagement, but the Health ministry, reportedly, didn’t even bother to attend, although maybe someone was hidden in the crowd. Its disinterest in our biggest cause of death extends to spend, attention, policy, and even, it seems, comprehension.
Indeed, I was personally involved trying to get the Health ministry to adopt posters we designed and printed warning mothers of the killer cost of indoor open-fire cooking: no success at all. None.
Maybe the Health ministry cannot access the KNBS statistical data, or it just feels good about losing tens of thousands of Kenyans every year to one, preventable disease.
But now, what irony, the world’s stock markets have crashed and the globe is in total panic at the prospect of three in 100 people dying from the disease that’s Kenya’s top killer every single day, and we normally do nothing about it.
The Energy ministry did try to achieve a policy shift. We had a shyster subsector in our liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) market that had been making a living by refilling big-brand, expensive gas cylinders with Jua Kali gas. As a result, the big brands stopped bringing new cylinders to Kenya, and we ended up with far lower LPG use than in other sub-Saharan nations, and thus far more of the smoke-laden dirty cooking. The government moved on it and made the use of branded cylinders by any chancer illegal.
But the Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority (EPRA) has never implemented the change, fudging and extending, confusing and doing anything but close down the illegality.
So the oil marketers, who were set to invest in far more LPG, have never yet, still waiting for one regulator to apply the law.
Yet, now see how COVID-19 plays into our own pneumonia plague, for this virus will behave differently in Kenya as the land of pneumonia.
A study of the first 44,000 cases in China reported a higher death rate among men than women, seeing analysts slowly observe that in China 52 percent of men smoke, whereas only three percent of women do, so men are more lung damaged.
But the average number of cigarettes per day smoked by Chinese smokers is 15.
The majority of our women and children are smoking the equivalent of more than 800 cigarettes a day.
Few things could have struck us harder than an infectious disease that kills those with damaged lungs. But does that mean we might finally care to act on our killer dirty cooking?