As of Monday, South Korea confirmed cases had reached 763 and seven deaths from just 30 cases and no death last week.
Dear Dr Jane Ruth Aceng, Minister of Health, as you probably already know, COVID-19 better known as coronavirus is knocking on Africa’s door.
A case was reported in Egypt, but that is not the worry. The real issue is that outside of China, the virus has taken root in South Korea, Iran and Italy, where cases seemed to quadruple in a little less than 48 hours.
As of Monday, South Korea confirmed cases had reached 763 and seven deaths from just 30 cases and no death last week. Italy went from just a meagre three cases at the beginning of last week to 229 confirmed cases and six deaths by Monday afternoon.
The best and most pointed warning yet comes from a son of Africa, none other than the Director-General of World Health Organisation (WHO) Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who had this to say about the rapid spread of the virus outside China: “Use the window of opportunity provided by China’s quick action to intensify preparedness, including for the arrival of new cases, treating patients with dignity and protecting health workers.”
While Dr. Ghebreyesus will not use the word pandemic yet to describe the spread of COVID-19 worldwide, the Ethiopian sees the writing very clearly on the wall — the virus is coming, fast, hard and relentlessly. The question is no longer whether it will come to Uganda; the question is simply when it will arrive.
The more prescient question is: What is the Ministry of Health doing to prepare Ugandans for the coming of the virus? Where are the public awareness programmes to inform the public on what to do when the virus finally settles on our doorsteps? Where is the information about health facilities that have been identified as the best places to isolate, treat and care for the sick? Have the frontline workers been educated on the dos and don’ts of fighting the virus
On Monday, your twitter feed said that Uganda has in place a screening mechanism. What exactly does a screening mechanism do to determine whether or not the person entering Uganda is a carrier? From available literature (including the latest case in Toronto), potential carriers may not present the usual symptoms such as fever, coughing and so forth.
Instead, according to widely available information, some carriers stay healthy even as those around them fall to the illness.
These are many questions all at once. However, given the lack of information to the public on what to do, how to behave and where to go when sick with COVID-19, Uganda is not ready for the big war ahead.
Even before we get a case (and here there is no definitive indicator that we don’t already have a case), it is important that the public is subjected to a barrage of information about the virus, the symptoms and how it is transmitted from person to person.
Start with school-age children. They are the most vulnerable and yet the easiest to teach to become the best ambassadors of the campaign of preparedness for the arrival of the virus.
Information on how to avoid the virus and how to keep away infection should be provided to all children in every school when they start school every day.
They must be taught how to wash hands properly, how to avoid coughing directly on others and to stay home when sick. These are simple yet important messages that can easily be transmitted by teachers during daily school assemblies.
The use of the media—radio, television and newspapers — should kick up a notch to amplify the urgency of the coming fight, passing on accurate and factual information about the virus, and what the population must be doing to prepare for it.
Radio spots must be effectively used to send messages to the general public and specifically to health workers who will be the backbone of the effective combat against the virus when it finally touches down.
Uganda is blessed with one of the best grassroots systems in the world — the LC system allows information to be passed down to the village level. This is the time to work closely with all LC1s to ensure that every family in every village throughout the country has the correct information and knows what to do when the virus comes.
Finally, Uganda does not have testing facilities similar to Senegal’s Institute Pasteur de Dakar or South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD).
The point here is that to wait to see what happens when the virus comes will only exacerbate the problem. There is no “take-two” when it is finally here because the battle will already be won or lost depending on how well prepared the country is to deal with any outbreak.
The question of what will happen to sample testing should already be settled. Simply, what is the next best alternative for diagnosing the illnesses in patients? Are there portable testing kits that Uganda can purchase to help with this task? Are there ways through which healthcare providers will be able to provide support to patients without also exposing themselves to the scourge first?
The Ministry of Health must address these questions openly, transparently and unflinchingly, keeping in mind that there is already a big body of knowledge out there, from China and elsewhere where the illnesses are being dealt with. What cannot be ignored is the simple fact that COVID-19 is coming and when it does arrive, there will be no time for thinking, let alone making decisions.
The time to act is now.