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Build More Hospitals, Not Airstrips

Over 7 days ago, we lost a celebrated legal mind. The late Nzamba Kitonga, an award-winning jurist is said to have collapsed while in rural Kitui and pronounced dead on arrival to Hospital. May his soul rest in peace! 

While from the news we have heard many complain that poor transport infrastructure delayed his intervention, the real problem was actually lack of access to health. If there was a well-equipped and staffed health facility within reach, why would the late Kitonga require air lifting to the capital?

The headlines running that a lack of air strip cost the former constitution of Kenya review boss his life are inaccurate and deceitful. They propagate the learned helplessness that Kenyans are slowly settling for. That our public hospitals are second class to the private ones in the capital.

Mr Kitonga may not have needed an MRI to save his life, but a well-stocked hospital with a qualified doctor to address the life threatening emergency and commence intervention. When it comes to emergency medicine, time is life: the sooner the intervention, the more the likelihood of saving a life. Airlifting a patient from a remote Kenyan village to the capital would not be the wisest first thing to do. Attending to them, stabilizing them and making the correct diagnosis would be. Airlifting can always be done later, even to far countries across oceans. 

Born in the penultimate years of the country’s independence, Kitonga must have celebrated the independence government’s declaration of war on poverty, illiteracy and disease. Having steered the 2010 Kenyan constitution writing, Kitonga must have looked with satisfaction at article 43 of the said document that guarantees every Kenyan the right to highest attainable health care including emergency healthcare. 

Kitonga’s death took me down memory lane.  Eight years ago in Malawi. The president, Bingu wa Mutharika suffered a cardiac arrest and could not be revived. Word has it that the state of health in the country was so poor that hospitals may have lacked the emergency drugs that would have given him a fighting chance. Even when confirmed dead, the health institutions lacked sufficient electricity to preserve his body. He had to be flown to South Africa. Access to an air strip and a private jet did not safe him. 

It is easy to remember the Kitongas and the Mutharikas lives because of their position in our society. But how many children under 5 have we lost since the promulgation of the new constitution? How many 64-year olds have collapsed in interior Kitui and could not be revived? 

What Kitui and the rest of the country needs is not an airstrip but accessible fully equipped, stocked and manned health facilities. Please, do not take us to the contorted argument of the acuity of having an airstrip in Kitui. The Kitui governor will remember with nostalgia when as the health minister,  her motion to bring universal health coverage was brought down in 2004. Even her boss, president Kibaki, could not support it because of the implications to the economy. If it had sailed through, Kitonga’s story may have been different.

We are known to copy and emulate British precedence on many things. If the airstrip in Kitui was functional, there is a likelihood that Kitonga would have been airlifted to  Nairobi then to the United Kingdom. The interesting part is that the United Kingdom health care is fully public funded through the National Health Service (NHS). It was not easy starting the NHS. The labour health minister met resistance from every angle. Yet today NHS stands as one of the sources of national pride in UK. 

Funding health is not easy. But for those who value their citizens’ lives and wellbeing, there is nothing too expensive. Hii pesa sio ya mama yako!

The next child to suffer a snake bite in Kitui will not require an airstrip. They won’t afford it. They will require a close by fully stocked and staffed hospital. But then again, a snake bite from rural Kitui may claim a life but is unlikely to catch the headlines. 

*Part of this blog appeared on the Daily Nation of 3rd November, 2020*

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