Corona virus reminds us to prioritise public health

Wednesday March 18 2020

In the recent past, several estates in Nairobi’s Eastleigh, Baba Dogo and Mukuru neighbourhoods have protested poor sanitation.

Sadly, no county or national government official has bothered to respond, yet public health is a grave concern globally.

Poor public health breeds diseases. Past experiences from various parts of the world show that some of the diseases resulting from hygiene issues since the bubonic fever in Europe and Asia have no cure.

The perennial outbreaks of cholera warn us that worse can happen. The cost of combating such diseases is often higher than preventive measures.

We should stop and reflect on what is going on in China at the moment. Since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared coronavirus a global public health emergency, cities of millions of people have been deserted.

The plague has so far killed hundreds of people and is likely to kill more.

Businesses and airports are closed. With a population of more than 1.3 billion people, China is slowly being isolated as more and more airlines cancel flights to the country.


The Chinese government has already spent $173 billion (Sh17.3 trillion) to stabilise the markets. Tourism is gone and the wider impact of the virus has immensely impacted local enterprises and is affecting global supply chains.

This tragic event could have been avoided. The city of Wuhan in Huabei province of China is learning the hard way that public health is an expensive affair if not taken seriously.

China is not a unique case. The likelihood of such a plague happening in many African cities is high because there are no strong public health institutions to regulate such things as consumption of game meat known as “bush meat.”

There are lessons to learn from Wuhan. The first is that we must begin to take public health much more seriously.

Let us not forget that Ebola, a fatal viral haemorrhagic fever, has evolved from being confined to a few West African countries to a global public health menace due to growing movement of people.

To date, there is no known treatment protocol for Ebola. The solution is simply to improve our public health practices and limit eating of uninspected animal meats.

As evidenced from Wuhan, the cost of a public health emergency is far greater than any country can handle.

We can avoid this if we begin to build better institutions of public health. It must be in our DNA that individual actions have a bearing on our collective will.

There are several interventions we ought to be making as a strategy to minimise or limit chances of such a catastrophe. These interventions will require good data for decision-making.

Therefore, capturing and analysing the same is of critical importance. For example, daily data on patient disease profile must be analysed to reveal emerging patterns. It is the patterns that can reveal disease outbreaks.

Kenya lacks the organisational culture to respond to public health emergencies. More often than not, it is media that has provided early warning on any outbreak, famine or some other catastrophe. Sometimes the reports come in too late when lives have been lost.

The responses have always been laughable when emergency teams take long and when they appear they always have wrong solutions.

An early warning system should be able to communicate to different government agencies responsible for emergency services. In my view, these agencies should include the military, which has the time to conduct drills and build some organisational culture that can rescue the country from public health emergencies.

The increased movement of people in the region makes every country in Africa vulnerable to such diseases as Ebola.


Perhaps the best preventive mechanism to minimise the risk is making hygiene part of the school curricula at all levels. One proven method of slowing down the spread of coronavirus is to wash hands, something that we should be doing every time we plan to ingest any food.

The end game is to inculcate a culture and sometimes conduct simulations of what to do in the event we had such an emergency.

Other interventions include leadership that can influence the right public behaviour. Without such leadership, planning for the city, collecting solid waste and minding the welfare of the people won’t exist.

This is where we are at the moment in Nairobi. It is what the city residents are complaining about. Their fears about disease outbreak are real, considering the perennial water shortage in the city.

Unfortunately, virtually nothing is being done to solve any of the urban problems in Kenya. Shanties are expanding, congestion is growing and mounds of garbage bile up in many estates. Stagnant water dots every gulley and creates a conducive environment to breed new diseases.

It is cheaper now to wade off disease by investing in the necessary infrastructure and building the right organisational culture than waiting to react to an epidemic that we have helped create.

Listen to the growing protests on the deteriorating environmental conditions in poor neighbourhoods.

We have many young people without jobs and have paid local taxes but we still lack the leadership to develop the necessary vision that puts the two together to ensure good life for every citizen.

The writer is a professor of entrepreneurship at University of Nairobi’s School of Business.