BRUSSELS, Belgium – Medical tourism costs African nations millions of dollars, and African leaders and officials lead the bandwagon of affluent Africans spending thousands of their taxpayers’ money to seek money care abroad.
One main reason why African leaders travel abroad for treatment is that the Health care systems in many African countries are inferior. Instead of fixing them, many African leaders prefer to seek medical attention elsewhere, notably in Europe, the United States, Canada, Asia, especially India, China, and Singapore.
A case in point is former Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe. Robert Mugabe, 95, has been in hospital in Singapore since April this, his successor Emmerson Mnangagwa has said.
President Mnangagwa said, Mr. Mugabe was making “good progress” and could be discharged soon. He, however, did not disclose Mr. Mugabe’s illness. In November, he said the ex-president was unable to walk because of ill-health and old age.
Mr. Mugabe ruled Zimbabwe for 38 years until he was forced to resign in 2017 after weeks of street protests from citizens who demanded he steps down.
Before his resignation, the military had placed the former president under house arrest, and parliament had threatened to impeach him after accusing him of allowing his wife, Grace Mugabe, to “usurp constitutional power.”
His resignation from office paved the way for Emmanuel Mnangagwa, his former deputy, to take power.
According to sources, Mr. Mugabe regularly travels to Singapore for medical check-ups but “unlike in the past when the former president would require just about a month for this, his physicians this time around determined that he be kept under observation for much longer,” President Mnangagwa said in a statement.
Many Zimbabwean and other African politicians go abroad for medical treatment because of the poor state of the country’s health services.
Other prominent African leaders who seek routine medical care abroad include the presidents of Nigeria, Angola, Benin and Algeria, Liberia, Guinea, and others. Most African cabinet officials and heads of autonomous agencies all have something in common with their leaders – the lack of faith in the health systems in their respective countries.
In 2017, the Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, 74, has spent more than four months in London getting treatment for an undisclosed illness, causing considerable disquiet at home. Unlike one of his predecessors, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua who went to Saudi Arabia to see a doctor, President Buhari did leave his deputy in charge.
In May 2017, the Angolan government revealed that Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who has been president for the last 38 years, had traveled to Spain for health reasons. However, as in the Nigerian case, the government was not forthcoming about the problem.
The recent ill-health of Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 80, was frequent in France for medical care. He suffered a stroke in 2013, returned from medical care to vote in a wheelchair in 2014 and later in the year traveled to a hospital in France.
For its part, the Benin government has been more forthcoming about the reason for its relatively youthful President Patrice Talon, 59, to travel to France in June. He went for two operations, one on his prostate and one on his digestive system, the government said.
These leaders and their officials travel abroad for medical care while leaving behind poorly funded health services, which most of their citizens have to rely on.
In 2010, the average amount spent on health in African countries per person was $135 (£100) compared to $3,150 in high-income countries, the UN’s World Health Organization said.
In Zimbabwe, for example, state-run hospitals and clinics often run out of essential medicines like painkillers and antibiotics, according to health watchdog Citizens Health Watch.
It says that the public health care system “continues to deteriorate at alarming levels” with a lack of money being the main problem.
In Liberia, the health care system is a ‘torture house’ as top medical facilities such as the John F. Kennedy Medical Center are in total disarray, poorly staffed and equipped while corruption and theft of public funds reign from one regime to another.
The International Medical Travel Journal (IMTJ) reveals that Africa is estimated to lose over $1billion a year on medical tourism abroad, according to World Bank statistics for 2015. Africa is exporting money and patients to the East, especially India.
Professor Khama Rogo of the World Bank says that as much as Africa is heavily resource-constrained, much money is used on treatment abroad that could have instead helped develop capacity locally.
Africa, according to Rogo, is exporting money and patients to the East, especially India, which has largely contributed to a flourishing private health sector at the expense of Africa’s.
Rogo explains, “The Indian private sector is enjoying the benefits of sickness from the African continent. Young people in Africa have instead started clinics as conveyor belts for Indian clinics. 25% of the passenger loads on major airlines Kenya Airways and Ethiopian Airlines are medical tourists. Since most governments cannot absorb all the medical experts in their countries, it is an opportunity for the private sector to help retain such talent in the region. This will attract clients from other countries and stop people from seeking care abroad.”
For Uganda, according to Grace Ssali Kiwanuka of the Uganda Healthcare Federation, the amount of money lost in medical tourism abroad is at least $3 million a year but, “The figure could be higher as there is no central body that co-ordinates who goes out. Health insurance companies that give international benefits make direct payments, individuals are using their savings and then the numerous sponsors such as the Indian Association in Uganda that sponsors several people for heart surgeries. India, South Africa, Thailand, and Turkey are all major destinations for Ugandans.”
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.
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.