On the 3rd of March, 2020, this newspaper carried an editorial in which we predicted that it was “not a matter of if, but when” the Coronavirus (COVID-19) would be detected in Zambia. Sadly, a month later, on the 2nd of April, the country recorded the first fatality due to the disease. In circumstances where fatalities could be avoided or prevented by proactive action, we find one death to be too many. To an extent, it borders on negligence on the part of our national health institutions.
On January 30, 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that COVID-19 had met the criteria for a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. This was the alarm bell that should have set in motion a cascade of events for countries to prepare for an imminent outbreak, notwithstanding the world media already reporting of unprecedented pneumonia-like illness and deaths in China and Korea for most of December, 2019, and January, 2020.
The Zambia National Public Health Institute (ZNPHI) is a specialized Agency for the Ministry of Health. Their role is to provide disease surveillance and intelligence information to the government. They are also supposed to be the leading Agency in providing technical support and leadership in times of an epidemic or pandemic. The Director at ZNPHI also holds another full-time position as Dean at the School of Public Health at the Levy Mwanawasa University Teaching Hospital. It saddens us a lot that even after we reported about the glaring inadequacies at ZNPHI a month ago, the status quo has continued. ZNPHI still has no detailed plan on how to combat COVID-19 in Zambia.
While we have seen health experts take the lead along with politicians in informing the public on COVID-19 in other countries, the ZNPHI has been conspicuously absent from the daily briefings by the Minister of Health. Ideally, the Director of the ZNPHI should give the technical updates of the COVID-19 status in Zambia. People must hear very little from politicians. It’s time for specialized technocrats and health experts to take the lead. Because the Ministry of Health is run and controlled by politicians, whose primary interest is image building, citizens will be under-served.
An example of what we are talking about is the information that was published on the official Ministry of Health Facebook page stating: “COVID-19 is airborne, it can settle on surfaces. Keep environments clean!” Of course, they deleted this misleading information about half an hour later, leaving people perplexed. But to us and others, who know how to retrieve deleted posts online, this misinformation is still there on the Internet. This is what happens when politicians and their chola boys side-line experts in order to gain mileage from a health crisis.
Our point is that the ZNPHI is the ideal institution to help the Ministry of Health in scaling up the fight against COVID-19. The ZNPHI website (https://znphi.co.zm) should be updated at least three to four times a day with accurate data, not misleading people that COVID-19 is an airborne disease. There is no need for the Zambian public to wait for 24 hours for a Ministerial update from Honourable Chitalu Chilufya and his “press assistant” Honourable Dora Siliya.
Now, while we commend the donations from the corporate world during the daily briefings, we think it would add more value if a separate channel for donations were opened and reserve the daily briefing time to a more detailed technical update to inform and educate the public about COVID-19. And there are a lot of things to update the nation about.
Most Zambians would like to know from ZNPHI what they have projected in terms of number of expected infections. Of these, how many will require hospitalization? How many will require quarantine only? How many bed spaces at hospitals around the country have been created in anticipation of more COVID-19 patients? How many hospitals have fully functioning ICUs in the country? How many patients will need ICU care? Have all needed medical supplies and personal protective equipment been delivered? Have healthcare staff been trained in infection control, specifically in light of COVID-19? When do we expect the cases to peak and what additional support at that time will be needed? How many deaths are expected?
Zambians don’t know all this. In fact, they don’t even know where to go or what to do when they notice symptoms.
We have tried to reach out to the ZNPHI Director to get answers to the above questions, but he has remained unavailable to us. Unfortunately, if the events of the cholera outbreaks two years ago, and the way the ZNPHI conducted itself then, are something to go by, we are afraid this COVID-19 outbreak will be disastrous! It will very quickly overwhelm our healthcare delivery system. Why the ZNPHI has not recommended the ban of public transportation where people sit closer to each other is hard to understand. Why our borders are still open is just as shocking.
Preventing the further spread of COVID-19 will require difficult and sometimes very hard decisions and the technocrats ought to advise the politicians accordingly.