Growing Covid-19 Deaths Robbing Africa of Dedicated Medical Specialists

The late Dr. Hakim

The late Professor James Gita Hakim. Photo: Facebook.

As Africa finds itself deeper in the clutches of the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, it is key specialists in the medical, engineering and technology development sectors who will be difficult to replace in the short to medium term.

Their deaths have left a huge vacuum and it is not going to be easy to train and replace the specialists.

In January alone, Zimbabwe lost prominent and foremost heart specialist physician Professor James Gita Hakim and five other specialists in the medical fraternity due to Covid 19 related complications. He was a professor of medicine and past chair of the UZ Medical School. Prof Hakim studied medicine at the University of Makerere in Uganda and specialized in internal medicine in Kenya, UK, Germany, Australia and South Africa.

He was an active clinician with interest in HIV Aids preventative and therapeutic research including co- infections. The medical expert also held a number of positions and portfolios in various local, regional and international bodies.

South Africa, Zambia, Kenya, and several other African countries have lost a number of healthcare specialists who had outstanding commitment and leadership to health, scientific excellence and generosity in mentorship and support for junior doctors. Coronavirus cases are on the rise in Africa and have crossed the 3.6 million mark-with more than 3.2 million recoveries and 95, 000 deaths.

Among the affected and the dead are medical staff caring for COVID – 19 patients who are on the frontline and face mental stress, physical exhaustion, separation from families, stigma and the pain of losing patients and colleagues. Many of them have been infected and some have died.

As the world finds itself in much anxiety about the future – there is a lot of uncertainty about how Africa will consolidate its human resources in the healthcare sector which was already battling in the pre-pandemic era.

In Africa, where the pandemic is escalating, there are major gaps in response capacity, especially in human resources and protective equipment. Nurses, doctors and a number of healthcare specialists, from the outset of the pandemic warned of the potential implications of the virus they little understood at first.

Most of the professionals dying were contributing to various research programs on potential treatments and vaccines for Covid 19 as well as other pandemics such as HIV and Aids, TB, cancer and a host of other rising non-communicable diseases in Africa.

The number of deaths are overwhelming across the continent and we pay tribute to the frontline healthcare workers in Africa who work under tough conditions with little pay and benefits.

It is not possible to honor all of the health workers here, but most African countries are awash with reports of health professionals from different specialties who have succumbed to the disease. Various media platforms are abuzz with obituaries and tributes to the many other health workers who have died in the pandemic.

Their deaths are also a reminder of the ongoing dedication and service of those who continue to care for patients at a time when COVID-19 cases and deaths are rising on the continent.

Healthcare workers in Africa face challenging working conditions with no life insurance, inadequate pay and constant burnout. This pandemic has put more pressure on an already overwhelmed workforce already struggling with low morale. There is a general shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) – facemasks, leading to reuse and prolonged use by health staff.

Challenges in the healthcare sector are deep and there is a need to intensify efforts to strengthen mechanisms to protect healthcare workers on the continent. Meanwhile, conditions on the ground – in clinics, hospitals and schools across the country – are deteriorating with shortages of protective equipment, let alone supplies of therapeutics and oxygen and ventilators.

But the impact is huge. The World Health Organization estimates a projected shortfall of 18 million health workers by 2030, mostly in low and lower-middle income countries. Africa is the hardest hit and faces difficulties in the education, employment, deployment, retention, and performance of their healthcare workforce.

The healthcare system in most African countries is already overburdened, with one doctor for every 10, 000 people. Covid – 19 is widening the gap and there is a need for the African Union to place special emphasis on supporting the training of specialist healthcare workers now and in the post Covid -19 era.

Statistics show that over 40% of WHO member states have less than 10 medical doctors per 10, 000 population while 26% have less than 3. Africa suffers more than 22% of the global burden of disease but has access to only 3% of healthcare workers and less than 1% of the world’s financial resources.

All this compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic means there will be a huge vacuum in healthcare service delivery.

The impact is also being felt intensely in other sectors as well. In January and early February, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) lost more than 15 cabinet ministers to the novel virus, forcing regional leaders to make cabinet changes. CEOs and other top experts in the business sector have also succumbed to the pandemic creating shocks to the continent’s human resources base.

But it’s the healthcare sector that is very fragile and delicate. African has very few trained surgeons. The Association of Surgeons of East Africa has 400 members and the College of Surgeons of East, Central, and Southern Africa [COSECSA] has 300 experts to care for more than 200 million people in the eight-country region.

This figure is falling owing to the Covid – 19 pandemic and it will not be easy to replace the specialists. African countries have to prioritize and acknowledge the commitment of healthcare workers through improved remuneration and boosting of staff morale.

International support and national commitment should be directed to help safeguard healthcare workers in Africa, essential for limiting the pandemic’s potentially devastating heath, socio-economic and security impacts on the continent.

Sifelani Tsiko is a veteran journalists based in Harare, Zimbabwe


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