IMPROVE HEALTH CARE: South African Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi says health-care systems in Africa must be improved so they can treat heads of state. Picture: Cindy Waxa

South African Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has criticised African leaders for seeking treatment overseas while presiding over collapsing health-care systems on their continent.

He bemoaned the trend as Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has embarked on yet another medical trip to the Far East while Nigerian leader Muhammadu Buhari has been in the UK for treatment, the second time this year he is spending time in Europe for lengthy treatment.

Mugabe, 93, and Buhari – 19 years Mugabe’s junior – are suffering undisclosed illnesses which are rumoured to be cancer.

They join a list of African leaders who have sought treatment abroad or have died while seeking treatment at hospitals outside Africa, mostly at a cost to the taxpayer.

Last year, Buhari indicated his country was spending about $1billion of precious foreign currency annually on medical treatment abroad.

According to the East African Community, governments in the sub-region lose $150million annually in seeking medical treatment overseas.

Heads of state Levy Mwanawasa (Zambia), Lansana Conte (Guinea), Malam Bacai Sanha (Guinea Bissau) and Meles Zenawi (Ethiopia) died overseas while seeking medical treatment.

Others such as Gabon's First Lady Edith Lucie Bongo, John Atta Mills of Ghana and Nigeria’s Umaru Musa Yar’Adua have died in their countries after medical stints abroad.

Motsoaledi expressed outrage at the trend. “I have made it very clear and I have never hidden it,” he said. “I don’t like it.

“I believe we are the only continent where, when the head of state is sick, they have to look for health care outside the continent. What does it say of us as Africa, why only us in this continent?” he asked.

“When heads of state in America are sick they are treated there, when heads of state all over Europe are sick they get treated there. When heads of states in the Far East are sick they are treated there. Why are we the only continent that when our heads of states are sick they have to go elsewhere?”

African leaders are accused of inheriting functioning health sectors and running them down through corruption and inept policies. “It is untenable. Health-care systems in Africa must be improved such that we are in a position to treat our heads of state,” Motsoaledi said.

“I am very clear about that. I have said it before to ministers of health during the World Health Organisation Africa region [summit] which was held in Benin in 2014 after the Ebola outbreak.

“I have said that part of the reason why we suffered Ebola so much is that our health-care systems are weak. These health-care systems will not be strong when our heads of state go elsewhere because they won’t be able to see what is happening at home.

“They won’t be able to say, ‘I have been to hospital, I saw these shortcomings, I need to resolve them’. Many (ministers) agree with me because they know it’s true.

“The day we wake up and say health-care systems have improved is the day heads of state have confidence in their health-care systems. Why leave the masses and go elsewhere? It is grossly unacceptable.”

Motsoaledi has been practising what he has been preaching. In 2015, he was admitted to Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Pretoria suffering from pneumonia. In 2013, he was admitted for a surgical procedure at the same hospital.

“My feeling is that health-care leaders need to get treated where everybody else is treated,” he said.

“That’s why I went to Steve Biko. There are quite a number of people (who have been treated there) only they didn’t give me permission (to disclose who). One gave me permission, former transport minister Dipuo Peters. She has gone there for procedures,” said Motsoaledi.

He highly rated the public hospital, that was established in 1932.

“By the way, contrary to belief, Steve Biko is one of the best hospitals,” he said.

“They have got a nuclear medicine department where private hospitals refer (patients to for procedures that private hospitals cannot do).”

He lamented the stereotype that public health facilities in South Africa were substandard.

“Don’t ever think that going to a public hospital is going to an inferior institution. Some of them are the best. Some of them do things that are out of this world.”

While the South African private and public systems exist in parallel, with policies skewed in favour of the elite, South Africa boasts well-resourced facilities, compared to most parts of the continent.

Political leaders in the region patronise South Africa’s private health-care sector. – CAJ News