The health of public figures such as Presidents, Kings and Queens, Governors, Ministers and Chiefs; is a subject kept under wraps or spoken of in hushed tones.
When the office of former President John Kufuor issued a public statement giving details about a medical procedure he had undergone, it was news flash. A team of Ghanaian doctors and surgeons performed the delicate spinal surgery at the Cardiothoracic Centre of the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra. Elizabeth Ohene writes that, “By announcing details about his medical treatment, Mr Kufuor has broken many myths - and we shall forever be grateful to him.” She continues to say that, “Now important people in our society can be sick and admit as much without thinking that they are jeopardising their official positions.”
The whole episode was not just an account of a public figure announcing facts concerning his well-being; rather it was the acknowledgement that bigwigs of society are just mortal beings like the rest of us. More to that, for President Kufuor to be operated by a team of Ghanaian doctors in a Ghanaian hospital spoke volumes not only to the country, but to the rest of the African continent.
Within Africa, it is an established fact that those in the public domain are quick to fly out for routine medical examinations or for treatment when they get ill. The late Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua spent most of his last days overseas for medical reasons. Recently, President Robert Mugabe visited Singapore on health grounds. This in face of the deterioration of local health facilities in Zimbabwe. Statistics from Zimbabwe's health officials reveal that about 100 children are dying every day after succumbing to different diseases. The country's health system which used to be the best in the continent has collapsed over the years of misrule forcing Mugabe to frequent Asia for medical treatment. In Kenya, Ministers Professor Anyang' Nyong'o and Beth Mugo both holding ministerial posts in the health docket have both been to the United States for cancer treatment.
While many in the continent have absolute confidence in African doctors, they cannot have as much confidence in the equipment, laboratories or general set-up in public hospitals in Africa. For the moneyed, or those who are able in one way or the other to get the state to foot their medical bills, the glaring option is often to leave the country for better treatment abroad. The message that is received by the rest of the populace is that foreign doctors in foreign hospitals are entrusted with the health of the big shots while the common man has to contend with whatever health care there is in their country. Public health delivery in Africa is wanting when it comes to affordability, accessibility and quality. The limited human resource capacity and understaffing are other factors that greatly negate good health delivery. Public provision may as well be plagued with problems of poor management and corruption. Public hospitals often work under highly unfavourable conditions and there is a lack of basic infrastructure for health care. The access to good health for the poor is dismal, as they may not be able to pay even the admission fee, not to mention the costs of the pharmaceuticals.
When Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika died from a heart attack in March, there was abit of confusion about what really took place. Some media circles were abuzz with the news that he had passed on in South Africa while undergoing medical treatment for a cardiac arrest; while Reuters bluntly stated that “the late President was dead on arrival at a hospital in Lilongwe.” Much of the blame, they felt, was placed on the country’s shoddy infrastructure and poor medical system which played a role in him not receiving the urgent medical treatment he should have received. Medical sources indeed confirmed that “the former World Bank economist had been flown out because a power and energy crisis in the nation of 13 million was so severe the Lilongwe state hospital would not have been able to carry out a proper autopsy or even keep his body refrigerated.” Chimwemwe Phiri, a Lilongwe businessman was quoted as saying, “We know that he is dead and unfortunately he died at a local, poor hospital which he never cared about - no drugs, no power.” BBC Kampala correspondent Joshua Mmali twitted that; there are lessons to be learnt from Malawi for African presidents, “You can’t go to the U.K or Germany to treat a heart attack. Improve your health systems!” Going abroad was simply an option that President Mutharika didn’t have.
Joshua Keating blogs that, “It’s always a bit surprising that this isn’t more politically embarrassing. If there isn’t even one hospital in a leader’s country where he feels comfortable getting treated - presumably by that country’s best doctors and the most advanced equipment available - that would seem to be a pretty damning indictment of his leadership.” While Prof Anyang Nyongo has initiated the African Cancer Foundation in Kenya to help fight cancer; for a president like former John Kufuor, it was what he set in place in Ghana, during his tenure to improve healthcare, that gave him confidence to undergo surgery in his own country. Former President Kufuor was largely responsible for bringing national health insurance to Ghana, so it is particularly notable that he made the decision to be treated right at home.
* Caroline Achieng Otieno has a post-graduate degree in International Law - Human Rights specialization, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org