Stop stealing! Invest in healthcare or the rich and poor perish

Thursday April 2 2020

Coronavirus Kenya

Health personnel measure the temperature of a visitor at the entrance of the Mbagathi Hospital in Nairobi, Kenya on March 18, 2020. PHOTO | LUIS TATO | AFP 

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The coronavirus has spread panic across the globe. Unless a vaccine or a cure is found soon, the disease will leave families and economies in ruin.

Perhaps the indelible effect of the virus is the way it is impacting long-held customs. We cannot hug our loved ones. We cannot visit grandma. In social places, you view the next person to you as a potential carrier of death.

One wonders what it will mean to be human should habits and customs that define culture continue to be strained by this or other future diseases. But that is a question for philosophers and sociologists.

Of grave concern to me is whether Africans will survive the next ‘big one’, not how human culture will be changed by these kinds of diseases.

The Spanish flu of 1918 left an estimated 30 million people dead across the globe. Before this apocalyptic event, healthcare for the poor in European countries was largely provided by religious and philanthropic organisations. The aristocrats and the well-to-do had private healthcare.

The implicit view of the upper classes was that epidemics were a result of poor peoples’ unhygienic lifestyles, and they got what they deserved. But the Spanish flu, though disproportionately affecting poor people, demonstrated no one was immune.


This realisation—not the compassion of the governing upper classes—led to a rethinking of healthcare provision. Many countries began to institute a centralised public healthcare system.

This reorganisation of healthcare, along with funding for research, and general advancement of medicine in these countries, resulted in fairly effective and equitable healthcare provision.

Today, in the wake of the coronavirus, these countries are reviewing their public healthcare systems in readiness for the next pandemic. In Africa, public healthcare is poorly funded and hospitals lack modern equipment and medical personnel.

In rural areas, people continue to die of preventable and easily treatable illnesses. The rich have private or, if you are a politician, a fabulous taxpayer-funded insurance scheme that enables them to get treatment in the best hospitals in the land.

Alternatively, and this has been the trend, they are flown to hospitals in South Africa, India or Europe. Therefore, the effective healthcare situation in Africa is not dissimilar to that which existed in Europe before the Spanish flu—the poor masses are left to their own devices while the rich are afforded the best care modern medicine can offer.

Hopefully, just as happened in Europe, the rich in Africa will realise that they, too, are vulnerable to pandemics and their best protection is well-resourced, highly developed public healthcare systems.

The Indian and Singaporean healthcare systems were as underdeveloped in the 1960s as ours. What those countries did was to invest in public healthcare.

The lesson Africa’s political class and their rich partners in crime should learn is simple: Stop stealing and instead invest in public healthcare or else we will all—rich and poor—perish together.

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator.