By Melvine Anyango Otieno
The year of 2020 started as a dream. I being given a wonderful opportunity to become the PHA Next Generation Fellow, awarded by one of my most favorite organizations in the world: the Planetary Health Alliance. With a positive mindset, nothing would prevent me from doing an extraordinary job.
Do you believe in Karma? It seems that this is a payback time from Mother Nature. It’s high time everyone globally to accept our mistakes for mistreating the planet by taking responsibility and thrive to focus more on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals in every context. We also need to move beyond the conceptual approach to advance the planetary health action.
Here, I share one solution that we developed to combat this crisis in Africa.
In Africa, where I live, there were many questions that were raised when stories about COVID-19 started spreading. Could Africans have been exposed to similar viruses before? Are some places in the region more exposed than others because of climatic conditions? Before coronavirus finally hit my own country, Kenya, there were myths and misconceptions about this disease spreading like a bush fire across the nation. As the cases increased drastically, the majority of Kenyans were subjected to strict measures, both from the local and national government. Slowly, Kenyans started to adjust to the new way of living.
However, experiencing a pandemic in the Global South has a different meaning. In Kenya, the gap between the poor and the rich is ever widening and only a measly 0.1% of the country’s population has access to reasonable healthcare. This pandemic has truly traumatized the poor whose survival depends on daily plans and informal jobs. Water scarcity and crowded informal settlements are not the recipe for social distancing and hand-washing. Hunger and poverty are seemingly a permanent mark of their identity. Let's not forget the street children and families to whom information of the circumstances often arrive too late.
Women are also facing extreme challenges, including: the burden of home and child care, house chores, and work related to proper hygiene and the dietary aspect for the family, as they actually control menus in a number of households in the African culture.
Like other diseases, the spread of COVID-19 is not clearly understood. But we know that the virus does not discriminate the rich or the poor. There is no proven genetic difference between black, brown or yellow. The range of environmental conditions required for the disease spread has not been clearly explained. Africans hope that our weather conditions fall out of range of the conducive environments for the pathogen. But Africans now acknowledge that, coronavirus is killing people under the best medical care and, expectedly, fear that our healthcare system will be overwhelmed once we are hit the hardest.
How can we get prepared in Africa?
We can learn how to fight the pandemic from the Center of Disease Control and Prevention shared history of the deadliest Spanish flu of 1918 that killed between 50 to 100 million people. This was when the world population was less than 1.5 billion. A lot of generic pieces of advice could also be found with world health authorities, but all these do not fully align with the daily habits and lives of Africans. We know that washing hands is the first thing, but clean water and soap are not available for everyone. It is also very difficult to keep on washing your hands all the time.
Despite widespread poverty, there is one object that almost everyone manages to have: the phone! Though not mentioned in many protocols, a cloth that is wetted with fairly cheap disinfectant like dettol, savlon or even Jik (though this is a little corrosive) may be required to sanitize phones and surfaces that are often touched, like keyboards.
Sneezing on the elbow presents a challenge in places where short sleeved shirts are the most common. Also, the majority of people fend off crowded and stuffy places and habitually talk very close to one another. Avoiding loud and aggressive persons, who may now not only vexations to the spirit but are potential disease spitting agents, has become necessary. But killing these habits in a short span of time may be difficult. In addition, attention to a balanced diet has never been more important. Portions of variety of fruit and vegetables need to be added in our diets to fortify our immune systems.
I never imagined how social life could be robbed away from us so quickly. Streets are now stridden by people who are voluntarily wearing a new fashion accessory: a mask. Half-hearted attention to the elder and vulnerable persons with underlying medical conditions could be improved and the traditional visits to the elderly and sick must be restrained.
Indeed, technology plays vital roles; it has no boundaries and has enhanced social networking enabling us to keep connected even alone. Thanks to the Kenyan government’s waiver of taxes on money transfers, application of mobile digital transfer of money through Kenya's popular MPESA has made it possible to eliminate currency as a vector of disease pathogens.
While I thought this year was going to be the worst, I turned my eyes to the solutions I could build. With some of the great networks I acquired during my last year’s visit to Berlin at the World Health Summit and One Planet, One Health and One Future event, we, together as a team with the founder of the Medguide book, channeled our thoughts and shared one philosophy: “nobody left behind”. We created the med guide corona platform to strengthen our Global Health and also launched a display board that will help patients who may have contracted COVID-19 to better understand their symptoms. Check it out!