While there are no confirmed cases of the coronavirus disease in Africa, there are legitimate concerns about the vulnerability of the continent to this outbreak because in today’s economic globalisation, movement between Africa and China is significant.
For instance, closer home, there are daily flights between China and Kenya because of the trade relationships between the two countries. In fact, some estimates have ranked Nairobi the sixth among African cities receiving the highest volumes of travellers from the high-risk cities in China.
When Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director- general of the World Health Organisation declared the novel coronavirus disease outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, he rightly observed that the greatest concern is for the virus to spread to countries with weak health systems that are ill-prepared to deal with it.
One only needs to look at the experiences of the Ebola virus disease outbreak between 2014 and 2016 in West Africa and the current Ebola virus disease outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo to begin to imagine what happens when weak, ill prepared health systems are faced with a disease outbreak.
What exactly does it mean be better prepared? Preparedness calls for investment in the resilience of health systems. A health system is resilient if it retains the capacity to protect and promote the health of the population in the face of sudden crises such as disease outbreaks and more chronic challenges.
Health system resilience reduces the vulnerability of countries to disease outbreaks, by ensuring that they are better prepared for, and effectively respond to outbreaks, while at the same time maintaining the delivery of core healthcare services.
For Kenya and other African countries to be adequately prepared and respond to disease outbreaks such as the novel coronavirus, we need to invest in strengthening the resilience of our country’s health system.
We must ramp up investments in the building blocks of our health system that include health workers, service delivery, health commodities, information systems, and financing.
These are typically seen as the hardware of health systems. Epidemic response requires early warning systems through disease surveillance, systems to identify vulnerabilities such as potential entry points to the country or outbreak hotspots within the country, mechanisms to identify and screen potential cases, laboratory capacity to test and accurately diagnose suspected cases, and the capacity to provide healthcare services to confirmed cases.
We cannot expect that a country is up to the task of preventing or containing a disease epidemic if we do not have adequate numbers of health workers that are equipped to respond to an outbreak and provide care to those that are infected, a network of adequately equipped health facilities and laboratories with capacity to diagnose cases, and crucial health commodities such as medicines and vaccines.
The writer is director Kemri-Wellcome Trust Nairobi programme.