Ideas & Debate

Step up war on coronavirus to prevent spread

In the past couple of months, panic has swept the entire globe as media houses document the outbreak of the coronavirus. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

In the past couple of months, panic has swept the entire globe as media houses document the outbreak of the coronavirus. Cities in Italy and China have been shut down, major events have been cancelled as people deliberate the unfolding crisis.

In its wake, there have also been news and rumours peddled round the clock online, but that dismal barrage in a sense only makes things worse. So far, official figures put the number of confirmed cases as 199,470 and 8,009 deaths and 82,812 recoveries.

European countries where the coronavirus has just begun to spread are warning that their healthcare systems are not prepared for an outbreak on the scale seen in China, South Korea or Italy. And that applies to our situation in Africa and Kenya in particular.

Africa now has more than 30 cases of the new coronavirus, ranging from Egypt to South Africa — including Nigeria, the continent's most-populous country — although it has so far been spared a major outbreak.

The continent has close links to China, where the infection originated in late December, but the cases in Africa have all so far been linked to Europe.


They have mushroomed in the last week, which is of particular concern as it is feared that poorer countries in the continent may struggle to cope if it does spread.

The World Health Organisation admitted as much when it declared the coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency earlier in February. So far, the government opened a quarantine centre in Nairobi. But this is not enough.

The communal nature of our activities and interactions means that we could be hit harder, particularly the countryside.

The government should intensify a clear communication campaign on the risks to the public. As hospitals are the epicentres, they need to know how to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

As part of the preparedness training, simulation activities with isolation pods conducted in more health facilities. More importantly, we should have working equipment in those facilities.

Currently, there is no cure for this coronavirus, and treatments are based on the kind of care given for influenza (seasonal flu) and other severe respiratory illnesses, known as "supportive care”.

These treatments essentially treat the symptoms, which often in the case of coronavirus involve fever, cough and shortness of breath. In mild cases, this might simply mean rest and fever-reducing medications.

As the virus attacks the lungs, it becomes harder for patients to get enough oxygen into their bloodstream to support their kidneys, liver and heart.

A New England Journal of Medicine study of 1,099 hospitalised patients with the coronavirus in China found that 41.3 percent needed supplemental oxygen and 2.3 percent needed invasive mechanical ventilation.

A wave of very sick patients with the virus could outstrip not only the available beds but also the number of ventilators in the country.

There is no better time for the country to upscale the production and distribution of affordable production of oxygen in the health facilities, even as we pray that the virus does not spread further.

The writer is Executive Director Centre for Public Health and Development.