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‘COVID-19 surge could expose Botswana’s poor preparedness’

While Botswana has done fairly well in containment of the spread of COVID-19 that authorities attribute mainly to widespread observation of health protocols, both the government and the United Nations agree that the country barely has the capacity to deal with a surge in infections. LETLHOGILE MPUANG reports

The recent spike of local COVID-19 cases could expose Botswana’s lack of preparedness for tackling the deadly virus amid fears that the country’s health system could buckle if the rise does not abate.

Botswana has to-date recorded 804 COVID-19 cases, two deaths and 64 recoveries. Out of the 804 cases, 104 are local cases while 664 were transferred. A further breakdown shows that there are 74 active cases. The recent rise in COVID-19 cases has seen a two-week lockdown declared for Gaborone and the Greater Gaborone zone. Government has already withdrawn more than P1 billion from the 2020/21 recurrent budget of the Ministry of Health due to boost funds tackling COVID-19. The situation is most likely to be worsened by the fact that government abandoned its plans of procuring medical supplies worth P2.4 billion from manufacturers in China. The minister, Dr Lemogang Kwape, has told The Botswana Gazette that government was forced to reconsider buying the medical supplies because of long procurement queues. “The demand for medical supplies around is high and it takes time to get them,” he said in an interview on Tuesday this week

Minister Kwape added that the country’s best shot for a much stronger fight against COVID-19 is adherence to health protocols by members of the public. “This is the main reason we have been one of the few countries around the world that have done well in controlling the spread of COVID-19,” he said. “Prevention is always better than cure. And we continue to spread this very same message that our people must adhere to these measures.” The situation of Botswana’s vulnerability was captured in a United Nations report in May that described the country as one of the least prepared nations in the fight against COVID-19.

“There is currently limited information on the in-country availability and stock levels of critical health equipment and supplies, including personal protective equipment (PPE), essential medicines, testing kits and reagents among others to assess the country’s state of readiness to respond to COVID-19.” The report observed that “the total cost of establishing surge capacity for medical supplies, including essential medicines, reagents, health sector response to Gender Based Violence, test kits, hospital beds, acute and intensive care beds and equipment is yet unknown”.

This challenge, the report noted, is expected to extend to essential medicines as the country scales up multi-month dispensing of chronic disease medications to minimise individuals’ contact with health facilities. “It is also important to underscore the attention placed in Botswana to keep in focus the need to also address the double burden of HIV/AIDS and Non Communicable Diseases,” the reports said. A salient aspect of the report also stated that Botswana has a doctor to population ratio of 5.27 doctors per population of 10 000, representing half of the WHO recommended 10 doctors per 10 000. It noted Botswana’s inpatient care capacity of 18 hospital beds per population of 10,000 and 120 intensive care beds across the country that is said is low compared to other middle-income countries in the region.

Very clearly, more financial resources will be needed to continue the fight against COVID-19. The Minister of Finance and Economic Development, Dr. Thapelo Matsheka, told parliament yesterday (Tuesday) that so far government has spent more than P210 million on health supplies. “Mr Speaker, an amount of P210 656 369 was disbursed for health supplies with a value of more than P1 million through direct appointment since the declaration of the State of Emergency,” Matsheka said. “I will provide a copy of companies that were engaged and the goods procured.”

Matsheka was answering a question from Maun West MP Dumelang Saleshando who had asked the minister to provide details of purchases made by government for supplies associated with COVID-19 with a value of over P1 million through direct appointment since the State of Emergency was declared. According to the Permanent Secretary for Finance, Dr Wilfred Mandlebe, the health supplies included hotel bills for quarantines, medical supplies such as PPEs and test kits for the Ministry of Health. Chinese millionaire Jack Ma and the US Embassy have also donated several PPEs and test kits. A part of the P2.4 billion initially earmarked for procurement of medical supplies from China was used for wage subsidies and social relief.

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