Sad that in public health, we are all on our own!

Eight years ago, we had a cholera outbreak in which dozens of Kenyans lost their lives.

At the time, the minister in charge of Public Health issued a very dismissive statement in which she blamed the outbreak on people who she said needed to decide to lead more hygienic lives.

In other words, she placed the responsibility for the disease squarely in the laps of the victims.


Writing about this incident at the time, we likened her utterances to those of Marie Antoinette at the height of the French Revolution when she wondered aloud why hungry citizens were so fixated on bread when they could have cake.

Of course she literally lost her head soon after this.

One would expect that we would learn lessons from our past in order to avoid repeating previous mistakes that cost us heavily in lives and resources.


Unfortunately it would appear that we have not learnt our lessons.

A few weeks ago when doctors attending a conference at a famous hotel in Nairobi contracted cholera, the public health response was to blame the doctors for eating in roadside kiosks and bringing the scourge to the hotel.

In fact, others in government manufactured an elaborate conspiracy theory that managed to rope in the political opposition.


To this day, denials have been the order of the day concerning this particular outbreak.

Another outbreak swiftly followed, this time at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre during a high-level international meeting attended by senior government officials, including Cabinet secretaries.

Two Cabinet Secretaries were among the dozens infected by the deadly germ, and they required to be hospitalised for treatment.


A blame game followed this incident, with the national government and the Nairobi county government trading accusations on whose responsibility it is to deal with the outbreak.

A number of weak statements were issued purportedly to inform the public about the measures to be taken to control the outbreak, while in the meantime people continued to suffer and die from cholera.

Eventually, the authorities admitted that there is an outbreak under way, driven largely by problems with access to clean drinking water in the city.


The reaction almost perfectly mirrors the 2009 outbreak, with the level of callousness exhibited by senior government officials not having abated at all.

In some quarters, the prevailing view is that the whole thing is a ploy by “someone” to discredit the government, especially during this campaign period.

This attitude continues to gain currency in the running of public affairs in this country, as demonstrated recently when a bridge under construction in western Kenya collapsed.


Instead of investigating the whole thing to get to understand why the bridge collapsed, several Kenyans immediately pointed fingers at the opposition leadership and accused them of conspiring to embarrass the President.

Reactions such as these cause us to waste opportunities to learn valuable lessons from our mistakes.

Once we blame politicians for the failings of professionals, others learn that you can actually be sloppy and get away with it.


The problem with sloppiness in public health is that lives are actually put at risk.

This would be unacceptable in any country that truly values human life, but in Kenya the value of a human life is pegged on exigencies of the times.

If the threat to life emanates from a leadership we feel affinity to, we are quick to excuse it and find alternative explanations for it.


However, should it emanate from a political side we are opposed to, we rush to condemn those responsible and extol the value of human life.

As a result of our politicised decision-making, we have already moved on from this cholera business, and are focused on “more important” things, including strategising on how best to win the coming elections.

One can only hope that in making political choices, the citizenry will evolve to a level where they will take note of the value politicians place on the lives of ordinary citizens especially in times of grave peril.

In the meantime, in public health, we are all on our own!

Atwoli is Associate Professor and Dean, Moi University School of Medicine [email protected]

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