At least 263 medics have tested positive while 15 have died across Africa in the ongoing fight against the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, putting into focus the safety of first line responders to the scourge.
More than 100 doctors and nurses have died from Covid-19 globally, including Gita Ramjee, a Ugandan-South African scientist and researcher in HIV prevention in Africa.
Healthcare workers have been praised as heroes and heroines for their personal sacrifices in the face of the highly infectious disease that has seen doctors and nurses scramble to save the lives of thousands of patients.
African doctors and nurses, like their colleagues in other parts of the world, have had to grapple with shortage of personal protective equipment (PPEs) and long work shifts.
Last week, at least 80 doctors and clinical officers from two hospitals in Kenya had to be quarantined for 14 days after coming into direct and indirect contact with a paediatric patient who tested positive and later died of the Covid-19.
“Soon as news of the boy came out in the media, the hospital told us to quarantine in our homes. We (30 nurses, doctor, nurse aids, lab technicians) came into contact with him and since then we have been sitting on edge. None of us was tested. But we were told we will be tested after 14 days,” one of the affected nurses told The EastAfrican.
Kenya so far has 10 infected medics, the highest among East African Community (EAC) member countries. None of the other EAC countries (Rwanda, Tanzania, South Sudan and Uganda) have reported infection or death of health workers.
“No health worker is among those confirmed with Covid-19 or in quarantine. We are offering PPEs and training the health workers. Those working in hospital isolation don’t have to go back to their families. We have a psychosocial team to counsel them,” said Uganda’s Health ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Ainebyoona.
The number of Covid-19 cases confirmed worldwide topped 1.6 million on Friday, with the death toll from the virus nearing 100,000. More than 10,000 cases have been reported in Africa, claiming over 500 lives.
Reaching the continent through travellers returning from hotspots in Asia, Europe and the United States, Africa’s first Covid-19 case was recorded in Egypt on February 14. Since then, a total of 52 countries have reported cases.
While Covid-19 was slow to reach Africa compared with other parts of the world, infection has grown exponentially in recent weeks and continues to spread, said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organisation (WHO) regional director for Africa.
“Covid-19 has the potential not only to cause thousands of deaths, but to also unleash economic and social devastation. Its spread beyond major cities means the opening of a new front in our fight against this virus,” said Dr Moeti.
Initially confined to capital cities a significant number of countries in Africa are now reporting cases in multiple provinces.
In a virtual media briefing, Dr Moeti said that already 16 African countries have reported community transmission.
“This requires a decentralised response, which is tailored to the local context. Communities need to be empowered, and provincial and district levels of government need to ensure they have the resources and expertise to respond to outbreaks locally.”
As the virus continues to spread in the region with projections showing that about 450,000 Africans could get infected by early next months, experts have cautioned that the continent’s weak healthcare systems could be overwhelmed.
The WHO estimates a projected shortfall of 18 million health workers by 2030 globally, mostly in low and lower-middle income countries.
Statistics show that over 40 per cent of WHO member states have less than 10 medical doctors per 10,000 population, while 26 per cent have less than three.
To plug this shortage during the Covid-19 pandemic, some East African countries have embarked on hiring more medics. Kenya, for instance announced that 5,000 health workers will be hired to help combat the disease.
Further, Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe last week directed immediate testing of all medical personnel and support staff as the government scaled up measures to curtail spread of the virus in the country.
“Testing of all health workers and medical staff including those in private hospitals, rapid response teams and all staff in facilities holding quarantine people must commence immediately,” he said.
Covid-19 has exposed the acute shortage of medicines and essential supplies including protective gear for health workers. Chinese billionaire Jack Ma has, once again, came to the aid of Africa last week with the second batch of donations of medical equipment.
The co-founder of e-commerce multinational Alibaba has now donated 500 ventilators, 200,000 suits and face shields, 2,000 thermometers, one million swabs, and extraction kits as well as 500,000 gloves.
The PPEs, as well as their effective usage, has been a major concern for medics on the frontline. While attending to patients, they need overalls that cover them properly. They also need re-usable items like gumboots and goggles or face shields that are decontaminated for re-use.
Many healthcare workers are concerned that if one doctor, nurse or cleaner becomes infected, they will transmit the virus to everyone seeking healthcare. This is happening around the globe.
“Many people get infected during the doffing process after handling a patient because they may improperly remove their personal protective gear,” says Francisca Akinyi, a senior nursing officer at the Kenyatta National Hospital’s Infectious Disease Unit in Mbagathi, Kenya. Doffing is the process of removing the PPEs especially the head and face covering.