African elites are notorious for seeking medical care abroad, eschewing medical facilities in their own countries, many of which are in a sorry state, having been starved of cash for maintenance and the acquisition of modern equipment. That the continent’s healthcare professionals are poorly remunerated has not helped the situation; many of them have voted with their feet and are to be found in hospitals in the UK and elsewhere.
The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa estimates that sub-Saharan Africa’s cash-strapped governments require about $66-billion each year to close the continent’s healthcare financing shortfall. Yet, it is only Botswana, Namibia and South Africa whose healthcare spending per capita exceeds $500 a year. This is despite African governments having pledged as far back as 2001 to allocate 15% of their Budgets to the healthcare sector.
Now, nearly two decades later, health-sector investment in most countries is lagging behind. With this in mind, the International Finance Corporation established the Health in Africa initiative to encourage private involvement in healthcare provision. Many private-sector players have come to the party, but the sad reality is that sub-Saharan Africa’s hospitals and other healthcare facilities simply cannot cope with demand.
But African elites have – until now – not been too bothered by this state of affairs. At the slightest hint of illness, they make a beeline for top hospitals in Europe and elsewhere. If they happen to be politicians, this will most probably be at the expense of long-suffering taxpayers.
Those who follow the goings-on in Africa with more than passing interest would know of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s five-month-long stay in a London hospital in 2017, seeking treatment for an undisclosed ailment. Last year, Gabon’s President Ali Bongo spent the better part of five months recuperating at a medical facility in Morocco, after suffering a stroke in late 2018.
Of course, those in our Southern African neck of the woods would remember how the late Robert Mugabe would commandeer aircraft from the ailing national carrier, Air Zimbabwe, to ferry him to Singapore for his frequent medical consultations. This habit didn’t stop when he was pushed out of office in November 2017; the only difference was that he would go hand in cap to the new sheriffs in town, asking for a plane to be made available to him. For some inexplicable reason, they always obliged him. When he breathed his last in September last year, he had been admitted to Singapore’s elite Glen Eagles Hospital for four months.
Mugabe is not the only prominent African politician to have died while seeking medical attention abroad. Zambia’s two Presidents to have died in office – Levy Mwanawasa and Michael Sata – went the way of all flesh while they were far, far away from home, Mwanawasa in France and Sata in the UK. Ali Bongo’s father, Omar Bongo, whom he succeeded as Gabon’s President in 2009, lost his long battle with cancer while receiving treatment in a Spanish hospital. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was rushed to Brussels, Belgium, in 2012 when his health deteriorated. When he returned to his country, he was in a coffin.
South African politicians are not immune to the ‘seek treatment overseas’ affliction. Both ex-President Jacob Zuma and Deputy President David Mabuza appear not to be too trusting of local doctors, preferring their counterparts in Russia. But the Russians, too, have fallen out of Zuma’s favour. Apparently, he now sees doctors in Cuba.
But, as most African countries are now on lockdown in an attempt to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, African elites have been closed in. Should they fall ill, they will have to face the squalid hospitals they have not bothered to adequately invest in over the years.