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Medical tourism of African leaders must come to an end

25.11.2018
As a continent, there is an anomaly that we have seemingly accepted as a norm for African leaders.
The public health systems in sub-Saharan Africa as in a debilitating condition. Diseases that are clearly preventable continue to claim the lives of women and children, and people especially those in rural areas are expected to travel long distances to receive services of health and education, and patients continue to sleep on hospital floors, yet we have come to accept that African leaders would rather go to Europe for medical attention, in a phenomenon known as medical tourism.

For African leaders, medical tourism destinations include Europe, America, the Middle East and Asia,South Africa and Morocco are the only destination on the continent seldom chosen by African leaders. But as long as this practice continues, for African leaders to go abroad for medical treatment, the determination for a better public health infrastructure in the continent will remain only but a dream.

Surprisingly, this appears to be a uniquely African practice because 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.
In the recent past, a number of African leaders have passed on while receiving treatment in these foreign nations. Gabon’s Omar Bongo perished in Spain, Zambia’s Levy Mwanawasa died in France while the country’s Michael Sata passed away in the UK, Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi died whilst in Belgium and Guinea Bissau’s Malam Bacai Sanha lost his life while he was in France.
The conversation around medical tourism has been going on for a number of years since African states started gaining independence but it was recently sparked by developments around Zimbabwe’s former long-time leader Robert Mugabe, who is now reportedly unable to walk and is currently receiving medical treatment in Singapore. For the past 37 years Mugabe has been a frequent visitor to Singapore seeking eye-related treatment.

Nigeria is surprisingly the biggest contributor to this phenomenon of medical tourism. The countries leaders and citizens have spent more than USD$1 Billion in the continent’s USD$6 Billion that is estimated to be spent with these travels.
The country’s leader Muhammadu Buhari has spent more time in the United Kingdom for medical treatment than doing a job he was elected to do. In the process, Buhari went against his word while campaigning for office that he will abolish medical tourism. His critics has condemned his actions adding that he could have received the same treatment in Nigeria.

President of the Republic of Benin Patrice Talon, went for surgery in France.
So the question then becomes: Does any of these leaders feel guilty after return from a successful medical treatment abroad? But more fundamentally, what causes them to seek treatment thousands of kilometers away from their native countries? Is it because they are aware that they are providing sub-standard quality of health care for patients who need these services the most? Do they want privacy from the media so badly that they opt to use state funds to fly half way across the globe to seek treatment?

This clearly indicates that for as long as leaders in the continent have an option, which the rest of the population doesn’t have, to fly overseas and have their illnesses taken care of, the state of primary and public healthcare will not be on top of political agendas across countries.
There needs to be a concerted effort by political parties, civil rights movements, Non-Gorvernmental Organisations and citizens to condemn medical tourism. There needs to be a pushback and an 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.

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.

AFRIC Editorial Article.

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