God forbid that Covid-19 will spread in Africa so much that more and more patients will require ventilators (also known as respirators). A ventilator is a breathing machine that helps people who can’t breathe on their own to breathe. One of the tragic potencies of Covid-19 is that it can yank you to a place where you simply can’t breathe on your own. When that happens, a patient needs a ventilator to help pump oxygen into their lungs and body even as it helps the body to get rid of carbon dioxide.
USA has approximately 160,000 ventilators. Meanwhile, Sierra Leone whose population is almost 8 million has 13 (it also has 31 Government Ministers); South Sudan has 4 for its 11 million people (it also has five vice-presidents); Central African Republic, with a population of 5 million, has 3 (it also has rich deposits of diamonds, gold, oil and uranium); Liberia, a country with roughly the same population of 5 million also has seven ventilators, with at least three of them being in the private hospitals. To make matters even worse, ten African countries have zero ventilators.
If you searched for an African country with ventilators in the three digits (100 and above), that search will come up with less than five countries. Because data is a notoriously slippery creature in Africa, its virtually impossible to know the actual number of ventilators in each country, leave alone across the continent.
God forbid that the corona virus should infiltrate refugee camps in Africa. There are approximately 18 million Africans living in these refugee camps. They live in such close proximity that social distancing is a near impossibility. For instance, Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp is home to 194,000 refugees. This means that there are twice as many people in this singular refugee camp, than the entire country of Seychelles. These resilient refugees are fellow Africans and shouldn’t flee war in their countries only to fall into the invisible corona arms.
God forbid that corona virus should slither into heavily populated informal settlements like Nairobi’s Kibra. I have friends in Kibra who often have no idea where their next meal will come from. How are they supposed to win the war against a tiny, invisible enemy when they can barely find visible food? The system has let them down during normal times and will probably fail them during these unusual times. Which makes you wonder what would happen if the corona virus decided to set up camp among them and millions of other low-income earners in Africa.
God forbid that the lockdown juggernaut starts ripping its way across Africa. Whereas to the middle and upper income earners a lockdown will just be a detour on the road back to health and normalcy, the story is markedly different for the low-income earners. For them, a lockdown is akin to a solitary confinement where hunger abounds. Most of them eat what their daily hunt delivers. If they don’t hunt (work) on any given day, there will be no food at the end of the day.
God forbid that Covid-19 visits the bodies of thousands of Africans per country, not the current tens or hundreds. We simply don’t have enough doctors to treat that many patients. While Italy has 1 doctor for every 243 people, Kenya has 1 doctor for 17,000 people. Tanzania is worse, with a doctor to patient ratio of 1:20,000. Unsurprisingly, this life and death ratio is a lot worse in many other African countries. But Corona virus doesn’t care if you are prepared for it or not. Within two weeks in April, it claimed the lives of three Cameroonian Doctors: Dr Kakizingi Lazare, Dr Felix Kwedi and Dr. Tchouamo Michela, all of them from Douala General Hospital. Their tragic passing on worsened Cameroon’s already dire doctor to patient ratio of 1:40,000. These doctors were however, not just tragic statistics. They were fathers, sons, uncles, colleagues. And now they are gone. In Cameroon, as in the rest of Africa, the loss of one doctor doesn’t just rip away an irreplaceable life; it also shatters a lifeline for thousands of people.
The World Health Organization recommends a doctor to patient ratio of 1:1,000. African governments must move mountains if they have to, in order to meet this target. Corona virus must jolt them towards this direction. Indeed, this lethal virus has exposed the underbelly of deeply flawed governance on the continent. It has revealed the dark truth that in most African countries, there are more big cars than isolation wards where patients with infectious diseases like Corona can be treated; that if you fill South Africa’s FNB Stadium (also known as The Calabash), which is Africa’s largest stadium, to its full capacity of 94,736 people, those people will be lucky to get four or five doctors. In many African countries, there will be only two or three doctors for almost 100,000 people.
So God forbid that there will be an influx of Covid-19 patients into hospitals. There will simply be nowhere to treat them and no doctors to treat them. And even those that will find space in the few isolation wards available will find health workers with insufficient Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). BBC reported last year that in certain hospitals in Southern Nigeria, doctors lack basic PPEs like gloves, so they often have to borrow them from patients. Yes, gloves.
It’s time for Africans to take off their gloves and call out the total underfunding and corruption in the health sector. How can Kenya, a country of fifty million people, have only 518 ICU beds?! Nairobi, a City of five million people, has only 247 ICU beds. Yet unfortunate as this is, it is double the 120 ICU beds in the ENTIRE Nigeria! Please remember that Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation. At least that was the case in 2017, so one hopes that Nigeria has in the last three years added drastically to their ICU beds capacity. All in all, there are less than five thousand ICU beds for Africa’s 1.1 billion people.
Fellow Africans, take off your gloves so that doctors, nurses and all health workers can have gloves, masks and all the critical Personal Protective Equipment that they need not just during this Covid-19 crisis, but thereafter. Take off your gloves so that your governments can prioritize health by: training and employing at least ten times as many doctors and nurses; building at least five times more hospitals; purchasing thousands of ventilators and PPEs for these hospitals and filling all hospitals with thousands of new critical care (ICU) beds.
It is utterly immoral and unacceptable for Africans to keep being sacrificed on the altar of greed, incompetent leadership and corruption.
Let us take off our gloves so that our doctors can put on their gloves; so that when diseases visit our societies, they can find strong shields of quality, world-class healthcare.
Only the woman or man in your mirror can tell you what your version of taking off gloves is. But whatever it is, its implementation will depend on your courage and principled stand.
God forbid that we should be afraid to take off our gloves. Africa is counting on us to do so.