By - Adedoyin Shittu
It is quite shameful that African leaders are widely known for patronising other countries for medical tourism while they leave the state of hospitals in their country in shambles. As long as this practice continues, the health sector of countries in the continent will never attain its full potential and the dream for a better public health infrastructure in the continent will remain only ibut a dream.
Medical tourism destinations by Africa leaders include Europe, America, the Middle East and Asia. South Africa and Morocco are the only destination on the continent seldom chosen by African leaders. While African leaders look down on their own health system for another overseas, Asian and Latin American leaders seem to have confident in their own health system. Even leaders of the poorest economies in Asia and Latin America use the health services of their own countries rather than outsourcing this function to Europeans.
While many African leaders have put their trust in health facilities abroad, unfortunately some of them had their health wellbeing to be beyond redemption and they never made it alive from their medical leave. They die while seeking treatment for their failing health overseas and their bodies are sent back for a hero’s burial in their nativeland. The recent African leader to have joined the league of African leaders who left their countries to seek medical treatment overseas and died there is former Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe. This is a man whose actions and policies led to the devastation of the health sector in his country while he enjoyed another country health facilities.
In Zimbabwe, the state-run hospitals and clinics often run out of basic medicines like painkillers and antibiotics and the public health care system “continues to deteriorate at alarming levels” with lack of money being the main problem but for the past 37 years, Mugabe has been a frequent visitor to Singapore for medical reasons. Mugabe died on September 6, 2019, at Gleneagles Hospital in Singapore where he was under observation for several months for an undisclosed illness.
Another African leader who is under radar for a failing health and seeking solace in an hospital in the West is Gabon Ali Bongo and his whereabouts have also been fuelling controversy. Just like the fate Nigeria suffered in 2017, Gabon has been leaderless on-and-off for the past year while his cabinet reports that Mr president is okay and “fit to rule” even after suffering from a stroke while attending a conference in Saudi Arabia. It was circulated last week that the president was receiving medical treatment in London but this news was quickly squashed down by an official press release also released last week. It was reported that he is undergoing routine medical checks while spending time at his London residence on his short leave and will soon return to Gabon.
Lists of some African leaders who have shunned medical facilities at home and died abroad
Zambia’s Michael Sata: Sata was 77 years old when he died of an undisclosed illness in a United Kingdom hospital on October 28th, 2014. He had held the office of the president for just a little over four years.
Zambia’s Levy Mwanawasa: Mwanawasa travelled to France for medical treatment after suffering a stroke and died at Hospital D’instruction Des Armées Percy, Clamart.
Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi Asres: Meles Zenawi died at a Belgian hospital in August of 2012 at 57 years old. His official cause of death was the result of a sudden infection. It was believed that he went to Brussles, Belgium for a minor procedure and was recuperating well when he developed an infection overnight and died.
Guinea Bissau’s Malam Bacai Sanhá: Sanhá was diabetic and he suffered from several health complications and throughout his time in office he was continually in and out of the hospital. He received treatment in France, Senegal, and Portugal. He died at 64 years of age in a Paris hospital in January 2012.
Gabon’s Omar Bongo: Omar Bongo ruled Gabon for 42 years, he travelled to Barcelona, Spain for treatment of cancer but he died of cardiac arrest there.
Malawi Bingu wa Mutharika: 78-year old Mutharika suffered a heart attack on the morning of April 5th, 2012, and was flown to a South African hospital where he was confirmed dead two days later.
Nigeria’s former first lady Stella Obasanjo: Stella Obasanjo, who was the wife of the sitting president at the time Olusegun Obasanjo, travelled to Spain for cosmetic surgery. However, his doctor misplaced a tube designed for a liposuction procedure into her abdominal cavity. She sustained a punctured colon and lacerated liver and died two days after the surgery.
Nigerian Umaru Musa Yar’Adua: Yar’Adua had been travelling to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. He travelled once again in November 2009 for Saudi Arabia for what is believed to have been for Acute Pericarditis, an inflammatory condition of the coverings of the heart, only to be smuggled into the country in February 2010 and died in May 2010.
Talk is Cheap
In 2017, President Buhari spent more time outside the country attending to his health than the time he spent in the country. The same president said that Nigeria spent over N 400 Billion alone on medical tourism annually. How ironic!. That money can create the best health centers in the world in Nigeria, but our leaders prefer to invest that chunk of money in a foreign land.
In buildup of the 2015 presidential election, president Buhari listed the abolishment of medical tourism as one of the cardinal promises in his campaign. He had promised to sponsor a bill against medical tourism of public servants to encourage the local hospitals but one assumption into office, not only did he became a poster face for African leaders seeking medical help overseas, he did not set foot into the aso villa hospital despite the huge chunk of money gulped by the facility for its maintenance. It is quite shameful that anytime he goes on such journeys overseas, he is given a hero’s welcome when he returns while millions of Nigerians are dying unnecessarily because of Nigerian doctors and health workers continually embark on strikes because of non-payment of salaries and poor working conditions. Every year, thousands of newly graduated doctors travel out of the country, to the US and UK especially, in search of ‘greener pastures’ while the federal government through his ministers claim we have more than enough doctors.
Poor Financing and Management of the Health facilities in Nigeria
Analysts point out that what the Aso Rock health facilities receives in terms of budgetary allocations annually is a lot more than what is allocated to each of the 16 major teaching hospitals across the country which take care of health needs of millions of Nigerians, train medical doctors and other health professionals for the nation. Yet the same Aso Villa hospital came under heavy criticism by the wife of the president who claim the hospital lacks basic amenities.
It was reported by News Telegraph that the federal government allocated a total of N9.17 billion for the operations of the State House Medical Centre between 2015 and 2018 and provision of medicine and medical supplies takes an average of 44% yet this has not translated to delivery. The simplest things such as gloves, syringe, paracetamol is unavailable in these state facilities. Who are the people stealing funds meant for health facilities? Something really need to be done to save the sector from collapse under the heavy weight of perennial and persistent managerial corruption, inefficiency and ineffectiveness of officials of government.
It is on record that till date, our healthcare budget has never exceeded six percent of the total budget. This makes it obvious that healthcare is not a priority for our leaders because most of them will rather travel abroad when the need arises. They do not believe in the health system and are not willing to invest in a healthy nation. Until they prioritise the healthcare, invest in it and manage the fund allocated for the smooth running of the system well, the dramatic exodus of Nigerian doctors will not end because you cannot fix a system you don’t believe in.
Nigeria is surprisingly the biggest contributor to this phenomenon of medical tourism. As at 2013, Nigeria spent more than USD$1 Billion out of the continent’s USD$6 Billion on medical tourism. This sum would have doubled because of the escalating deterioration of Nigeria heath facilities and brain drain in the medical field. Earlier this year, President Buhari was lamenting that the country loses over N 400 Billion annually to medical tourism and he was urging stakeholders to join hands to find a solution to it. Shameful but equally funny how this government is always ready to exempt itself from the failures of their administration. The singular action of the presidency using UK and Germany hospital for his family medical needs speaks volume about how the Nigerian health system is failing but no, the president does not think his actions have consequences
Lead by Example
As long as African leaders have an option that the rest of the population doesn’t have and can fly overseas at whim to have their illnesses taken care of, the state of primary and public healthcare will not be on top of political agendas across countries in the continent and this will also cost African countries economically.
African leaders needs to set aside their selfishness and make a conscious effort to abstain from medical tourism and condemn it in totality if they want to grow their health sector. If leaders do not experience the poor state of healthcare they are providing to their citizens, there lies a huge possibilities of a lack of political will to fix this huge challenge and build better infrastructure for the poor and marginalized. There is need for a pushback and advocacy for policy change to make such a practice illegal. Taxpayer’s should not be liable for the expenses of leaders who choose to seek medical attention outside their countries.
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