COVID-19’s multiple frontlines now include at least 46 countries across the African continent. Many, including Ethiopia, have frontline health care facilities battling without one of the most critical tools: adequate water and sanitation.
In an email as truth-telling as it is disturbing, my colleague and friend, Shimeta, ordered his employees to work from home by the time his country was reporting 19 cases (the count is now ~44): “Medical facilities and structures are very weak to handle such pandemic diseases. In Africa and especially in Ethiopia, the death toll will be unheard of up until now. One of the small advantages is that if this outbreak had started in Africa, the world would have heard of it very late, as was the case with the Rwandan genocide and Ebola in DRC.”
Ethiopia’s rural southwest was once my home. My dad moved his young family there from New Mexico and when he volunteered in the local health clinic, I would tag along. When I was 8-years-old, I remember a woman came in, in extraordinary pain. She’d been in labor for days. Her baby was dead and though my father tried, he could not save her life.
I became a doctor. In my work with Ethiopian women suffering from childbirth injuries, things have not improved nearly as much as they should. Women still die in childbirth by the hundreds of thousands globally and health care systems remain dilapidated. In 2016, my organization surveyed 14 rural health posts in Ethiopia. Not one had access to consistent water and sanitation—undercutting everything from the ability to prevent maternal and neonatal injury and death, to the spread of diseases. This fundamental global health problem is solvable and now more urgent than ever with COVID19 spreading across low- and middle-income countries.
Margaret “Migs” Muldrow, MD received her medical degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and was the Johns Hopkins Centennial Scholar for her humanitarianism in medicine. She is the founder & board chair of the Village Health Partnership based in Denver, Colorado.