By HENRY OWINO (Senior Correspondent)
Fear of healthcare and stigma of getting treatment at health facilities at the onset of coronavirus in the country, plunged Nairobi residents in panic. The worse who were muddled are local health experts, scientists, researchers and government officials.
It exposed the state of unpreparedness by authorities, capacity to handle the magnitude of Covid-19 cases in hospitals among other weaknesses. The confusion led to any patients mistaken for coronavirus and taken to hospitals or quarantine facilities for treatment.
The incompetence by health personnel later resulted to fear of hospital environments by ordinary citizens terming it breeding grounds for the virus. Residents therefore shunned healthcare facilities in order to remain safe at home rather than unwittingly infected by the deadly virus by others.
“Our hospitals here in Nairobi have become dangerous environment to visit as people fear coronavirus. Residents believe the health facilities were the major breeding grounds for coronavirus transmission,” Hellen Namuyemba explains.
Namuyemba is not alone in this fear of hospital environs as a result of Covid-19. Many residents in Nairobi County shunned treatment at any health facilities, fearing contraction of the deadly virus.
Namuyemba has been taking her treatment at Mbagathi County hospital for the rest of her life. She is 46 years old, married with five children and lives in Kawangware estate, which had most cases of coronavirus. She claims Covid-19 hindered her from visiting preferred health facility denying her right to health.
This began when first positive case of Covid-19 was confirmed in Kenya on 12 March, 2020. The announcement came as a shocker to Nairobi residents with many developing cold feet, anxiety and confusion rocking every corner of the 17 constituencies in the capital city.
In fact, Covid-19 pandemic flung this County into panic, aggravated by its mode of transmission and infection. Most residents had no tangible idea about the medium of contagion apart from information received from mainstream media outlets and social media platforms.
Initially, the government emphasized on isolation and quarantine for people with history of international travels. Friends, relatives or family members who came into contact with such persons had to go through the same procedure of 14 days quarantine.
Contact tracing was another eminent precaution though tedious, it meant to tame spread of the virus. Nairobi dwellers extremely fears quarantine thereby avoided interactions with any new faces in the estates. The way Covid-19 is tested also scared residents and went hiding.
Ishmael Mohammed is a student and had come to visit his uncle at Eastleigh estate from Garissa as learning institutions were shut down. Despite having been in Nairobi for three weeks, residents marked him as Covid-19 patient and he was forced in 14 days quarantine.
“Just because I was new in the estate, I was branded Covid-19 suspect and forced to isolation. After the quarantine, nobody wanted to associate with me including a few friends I had made,” Mohammed explains.
“I suffered discrimination amid stigma yet I was not sick in the first place. Again my uncle and his family were sidelined for long time just because of misinformation about my new face in the estate,” Mohammed regrets.
The scary part of quarantine is the fee that individuals had to part with hence nobody wanted to take any chances for close contacts with strangers
Depending on where one isolated themselves, a day quarantine cost Ksh2000 (US$S20) amounting to Ksh28000 (US$280) for two weeks on the lower side. Otherwise, citizens who were coming from diaspora and secluded themselves in Five Stars hotels paid even more.
It is this quarantine fee that scared most Kenyans let alone contracting the virus itself. As a result of this particular phenomenon, any families whose members were confirmed Covid-19 positive became automatically rebuffed.
Worse still were to residents who had to visit health facilities on a regular basis for their survival. These are patients with chronic diseases, pregnant mothers, among other acute diseases that needed urgent if not consistent medical attention.
Health workers or subordinate staff had fair share of humiliation. Majority remained in their respective health facilities to avoid public embarrassment at home.
Faith Ochieng lives in Kibera and works at one of the public hospitals as a cleaner. She was forced to move out of the compound by her fellow tenants. Choices were either to stay in the hospital or in quarantine amenity not at home.
Despite her explanations working as a subordinate staff, none of the neighbors listened. They removed her from the residential compound insisting that she go for quarantine.
“My long-time friends and neighbors turned against me just because of the environment I work at. First, I thought it was a mere joke, until a group of irate youth came in my house chanting,” Ms Ochieng recalls. The betrayal was real, so I had no otherwise but to obey for my dear life and for the sake of my family,” she explains.
“Instead of going for the quarantine yet I had no money, I decided to go back and camp at the hospital corridors where I work. Life was not easy there bearing in mind that I am not a medic,” Ms Ochieng laments weeping.
Ms Ochieng aged 36, argues she was more exposed to the virus than her normal operating days. No break, missed her family, no social life, handling hospital equipment every now and then with minimal rest besides not receiving allowance.
People with chronic health conditions had no otherwise but to abandon collecting medicine from health facilities. Pregnant mothers could not attend regular ante-natal or post natal healthcare services as usual. Other patients with common illnesses and conditions also snubbed the health facilities fearing possibility of getting infected by Covid-19.
Patrick Makau 46, lives in Kariobabgi estate and he is a diabetes. He collects his drugs at Kenyatta National hospital but he neither collected the medicine nor attended for routine examination by his doctor. This means he depended on over the counter medicine bought in local chemists.
“I am diabetes and live by drugs and suffered a lot after depleting my prescribed dosage. I usually take my medicine at Kenyatta National hospital after every five weeks and appear physically for checkups but it was impossible,” Makau regrets.
“My neighbors did not want anybody visiting health facility claiming it was a breeding ground for Covid-19 therefore, those who dared, were forced for quarantine,” Sadly, even those who are coming back healthy or Covid-19 negative from quarantines are stigmatized including their families. ”Makau explains.
Makau recalls how daily Covid-19 updates by CS Mutahi Kagwe was adding stress to people with pre-existing conditions. He said as a vulnerable to coronavirus, he kept off visiting the hospital to be safe and avoid stigma.
“I know a friend who died not because of Covid-19 but due to high blood pressure developed as results of daily updates Covid-19 status,” Makau reveals.
According to Dr John Ong’ech, Deputy CEO at KNH, paranoia of health facilities did not affect people who needed essential and routine medical checkups only. It affected their close families, relatives and friends who could not come visiting the sick as it was banned as well.
“Kenyatta National and Referral hospital the largest referral health facility in Kenya was deserted. Mbagathi County hospital the main Covid-19 Isolation Centre, became a ‘no going zone’owing to obsession with coronavirus proliferation in the hospitals,” Dr Ong’ech reveals.
Others are Mama Lucy Kibaki hospital, Pumwani Maternity hospital the largest maternal referral hospital, Mathare National & Teaching hospital, National Spinal Injury Referral hospital, Kenya Defense Forces Memorial hospital among many.
“There are about seven major reasons why patients fear hospitals which is known as nosocomephobia (the fear of hospitals). So, situation of Covid-19 is termed as mysophobia, (fear of germs) therefore patients keep off hospitals’ environment,” Dr Ong’ech explains.
“Major signs of such fear are usually full-blown panic attack at the sight or thought of a hospital. For example since early April, health personnel especially in Nairobi and Mombasa Counties experienced very low turnout of patients due to coronavirus pandemic,” he affirms.
“Apart from patients’ fear of the virus, there was just general suspicion from society for those visiting healthcare facilities hence stigmatized and discriminated. So, to be safe and accepted, people shunned quarantine and healthcare amenities,” Dr Ong’ech alluded.
Private hospitals went at loses and others closed down as no patients walked in them either. Majority of staff were sent home packing to evade more loss of salary payment.