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Health

As COVID toll among Kenyan doctors jumps, one widow shares her grief

KHUMUSALABA, Kenya (Reuters) - When Daniel Alushula began gasping for air after contracting COVID-19 last month, all the intensive care beds in his home town hospital were taken and he had to travel around 50 km (30 miles) to secure one.

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The 60-year-old orthopedic surgeon died a week later on Oct. 30, his family said, one of nine Kenyan doctors to have succumbed to the virus in the past four weeks, according to the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union.

He was active in the union’s campaign to better protect doctors and their families from the risk of catching while at work, fellow medic Anthony Akoto said.

Four of the nine doctors who have fallen victim to the pandemic died over the past weekend, and the Union has threatened a national strike from Dec. 6 if the government fails to provide protective equipment and medical insurance for its members, and compensation for health workers who die from COVID-19.

“We are not going to be sacrificial lambs,” its secretary-general, Chibanzi Mwachonda, told Reuters.

The Health Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Up to mid-October, COVID-19 had killed just one Kenyan doctor, as travel restrictions and mandatory mask wearing spared the country the worst of its first wave.

However, the disease has spread faster in the general population too since the government eased the curbs in late September, with compliance with mask wearing and social distancing also dropping.

As of Wednesday, the country had reported 1,313 deaths, about a quarter of which have occurred in November, and hospital beds are filling up across the country.

Before he died, Alushula tried to keep his colleagues’ spirits up.

“No need to panic, daktari”, Alushula wrote in a text message from his ICU bed to Akoto, a younger doctor he mentored at the hospital in the western district of Busia where they both worked. “You take care of the others, but I will pull through.”

Akoto said Alushula’s health insurance as a public doctor did not cover his COVID treatment, which his family had to pay for his treatment themselves. His wife and two children were also infected but recovered.

Alushula had not been treating COVID patients, his colleagues said, and it was unclear how he was infected.

At his funeral on Saturday, his wife Carolyne Alushula recalled his dedication. If he was called to an emergency while they were out in the car, she would often take a bus home so that he could drive a sick person to hospital.

“He treasured his calling more than anything else,” she said.

Reporting by Baz Ratner in Khumasalaba, Kenya and Maggie Fick; Editing by Katharine Houreld and John Stonestreet

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