Opinion

Millions ailing in pain, but do leaders have a solution?

East African Whispers

January 12, 2018

By Isaac Mwangi
East African News Agency, Arusha

Nothing affects the happiness and peace of homesteads across East Africa as ill health by a member of the household. Yet, despite the explosion of all kinds of sickness brought about by modern lifestyles, governments are doing little to avert the looming catastrophe.

Medical personnel generally take a two-pronged approach towards the resolution of health challenges: Curative as well as preventative. Of these two, the latter is perhaps the more important in addressing long-term challenges and community wellbeing. Once it is possible to forestall diseases and effectively prevent their spread in the community, the few who actually fall sick can then be attended through seeking treatment and cure at the available health facilities.

Uncollected garbage on a road at Eastleigh, Nairobi. PHOTO | THE STAR

Prevention against diseases involves looking at the environment in which communities live, their lifestyles, habits, diets, and so on. In East Africa, past community education in this area has aimed at curbing diseases such as malaria by removing stagnant water and bushes close to homesteads, for example, as well as encouraging the use of treated bed nets.

While such efforts have no doubt borne fruit in the past, they are by no means sufficient to address new challenges that keep arising. Unfortunately, the collapse of the health sector in virtually all countries in the region due to underfunding, neglect and corruption has adversely affected efforts to step up health interventions.

This is because the health sector does not operate in a vacuum, but rather as one cog within the economic wheel. For instance, authorities have been known to sanction the setting up of industries whose fumes negatively affect the health of communities around them in highly populated areas. Only recently, raw sewage was dumped in a field next to residential estates in Nairobi on the orders of a senior government official, ostensibly to make it impossible for an opposition rally to take place at the venue.

Even worse, there have been cases of dumping of toxic chemicals from developed countries. Local industries, too, have continued dumping effluent into rivers and thus threatening the health and wellbeing of communities dwelling downstream. Poor planning has also contributed its fair share of problems, ensuring that cities are overcrowded and with little by way of fresh air, parks and other amenities.

Not even the plastic ban in place in some countries in the region has helped to ease these problems, especially due to half-hearted implementation. While Rwanda has maintained strict implementation of the ban, for instance, in Kenya this has been wanting – especially because of powerful cartels and unscrupulous businessmen.

All these factors have contributed significantly to the poor health of citizens all across East Africa. The meat and meat products, milk, vegetables, fruits and other foodstuffs consumed in the region are often heavily laced with all sorts of dangerous chemicals.

In the circumstances, it is imperative to exercise care in the consumption of genetically-modified foods and to encourage organic farm products. To do so, East African countries will have to stand firm against Uncle Sam and his many machinations to create a market for their many chemicals and GM products.

As East African heads of state prepare to meet for their retreat on infrastructure and health financing and development in February, they should know that economic development isn’t just about huge infrastructure projects and the growth of abstract figures on GDP and per capita income. Rather, development is first and foremost about bringing about the wellbeing of citizens and households across the region – many of whom will benefit little from the huge projects being rolled out everywhere.

Crossing into Gisenyi, Rwanda, from Congo. Border officials are on the lookout for smugglers trying to bring plastic bags into the country. It is illegal to import, produce, use or sell plastic bags and plastic packaging except within specific industries like hospitals and pharmaceuticals in the East African country. The nation is one of over 40 around the world that have banned, restricted or taxed the use of plastic bags, including China, France and Italy. PHOTO | THE NEW YORK TIMES

In particular, governments must be petitioned to ensure the health of each and every citizen. While the national insurance scheme existing in some partner states helps in ameliorating the situation, it is by no means sufficient. Many people still find affordable healthcare out of reach. In this respect, Kenya’s latest move to cancel the free maternal healthcare programme is deeply disturbing.

Moreover, many of East Africa’s communities hardly have health facilities worth writing home about. Millions living in refugee camps as well as those who are internally displaced are in an even worse quagmire. Will East African leaders prioritise solutions to the plight of all these people? To do otherwise will be to abdicate their responsibility as leaders.

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