Hygiene, behaviour change crucial post Covid era

Thursday, May 12th, 2022 09:52 | By
Covid test. Illustration/Michael Mosote

The world, and, therefore, Kenya as well, is recovering from possibly the worst public health crisis it has faced in the past century.

As a critical part of our recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, we must develop new ways of living in our world—ways of living that constantly centre on personal and public health risks, and personal responsibility to manage these.

Fortunately, this change is starting to happen, but it needs to be encouraged and entrenched so we never find ourselves quite as unprepared for the next crisis as we were in the face of Covid.

While the devastating impact of the pandemic can’t be understated, it has resulted in some positive outcomes such as stimulating innovation and how it is shared across companies, populations and nations.

For instance, the speed and efficiency with which global health authorities and the pharmaceutical industry responded to the crisis must be commended. The various Covid vaccines that are now turning the tide against the virus were the result of fast and efficient collaboration and accumulated scientific research and knowledge-production and sharing.

However, it remains an immutable fact that our first and best line of defence against disease is preventative health care and the use of non-pharmaceutical interventions.

Personal hygiene is key and behavioural change will be even more important going forward. Despite the advances in vaccination, it will still remain important that every person takes to heart that they constantly wash hands, keep surfaces clean, and when in shared public spaces, use medically approved face masks to keep the exchange of the normal micro-droplets that humans emit down to a bear minimum.

The changes in personal behaviour protect us not only from Covid, but from other airborne and transmittable viruses, including the flu.

Countries across the world continue to collaborate and promote vaccination, and this is making an obvious impact on the spread of the deadly virus. But vaccines are expensive and as we saw with Covid, their development, distribution and control can be subject to geopolitical influences that disadvantage smaller and less developed nations.

For Africa, the management of public health risks must rely on non-pharmaceutical interventions rather than expensive drug and vaccine regimens. We have the least developed and most under-pressure healthcare systems in the world, the smallest health budgets, the least developed logistics and distribution systems, and burgeoning population. Our political and health management authorities need find cheaper, more manageable means to protect the populations from the next global health crisis.

Promoting a mask-wearing culture is one way for us to do this. It will not be easy, as it will require promoting a significant behavioural and cultural change. But it is necessary and urgent. Not to mention its efficacy has been demonstrated elsewhere.

East Asian countries such Japan, China and Taiwan have encouraged routine mask use in public for decades. They do so for various reasons, including curbing the spread of diseases, protecting from air pollution and taking responsibility for personal safety. This practice has now been identified by global health authorities as one of the reasons Asian countries were able to flatten the Covid curve quicker than other regions, and often without the disruptive lockdowns that became a norm elsewhere.

Mask technology is also improving by leaps and bounds, as many global manufacturers innovate and respond creatively to the growing need for this critical protective gear. Initially, masks came in all types of materials, and anything was encouraged to stave off the virus. But as we have learnt more about the virus and countering it, many manufacturers are producing better products. These are durable, effective against most kinds of infection, environmentally friendly, as well as breathable and comfortable for the wearer.

Because of our special circumstances, Kenya’s and Africa’s health authorities must start to give serious thought to encouraging a new culture of preventive mask-wearing (as well as promoting the other non-pharmaceutical methods mentioned) to protect our uniquely vulnerable populations from harm.

— The writer is a Milestones Neonatal and Paediatric Consultants Director and Assistant Professor of Paediatrics in Africa

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