The first time the issue I’m about to discuss crossed my mind, I was attending a course on gender and reproductive health at the Witts University in Johannesburg. It was October 2002 and the course was organized by the Kano-based DRPC.
Our professor, a White South African had earlier asked whether there was free primary health care in Nigeria. All five of us attending the course from here had replied no. We did say that some governments declare certain aspects, like maternal and child health care free, now and then, but it was not a national thing and it never lasts long.
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Our teacher demanded to know why Nigeria could not provide free health care for it’s population. To demonstrate why she thought the way she did, the lady academic lifted the curtain from our lecture room and asked the class ‘Can you see the beautiful cars on our roads? These are the kind of cars you see in Nigeria.’ In other words, if Nigerians were rich enough to buy cars like that, the country had no excuse not to fund healthcare.
This was 16 years ago. If this Lady Prof were to come to Nigeria today, she’d learn that no fewer than 64 private jets are owned by Nigerians, with only two of them reportedly owning nine aircraft between them. She’d also find out that among the owners are captains of industry, church leaders, politicians, other top-ranking Nigerians and four women.
What got me thinking about all this was an appeal made to me by a young female relative, who is an intern in one of the government hospitals in the FCT. She came to me on Thursday and said that she was seeking funds from all who could donate, because she and other interns had decided to raise funds and help offset the hospital bill of a one-month-old baby, whose parents were too poor to pay the cost of treatment and the child was seriously ill.
Full of sympathy for the poor folks I said to my guest. ‘How unfortunate? What kind of a country do we live in that poor people cannot get treated without recourse to begging?’ I asked, unhappily. But my guest had more to say. She said if I found that news upsetting I should know that a neonatal patient had only been reunited with his mother that day after several days of being left alone, because she had gone out to look for money to pay his hospital fees.
Finding the story so shocking I had to start asking questions like she was being interviewed.
‘A neonate is a child that’s between zero to one month old right?’ And she said ‘yes’. ‘You mean an actual mother really left such an infant behind in order to go and look for money to pay his medical bills?’ Again she replied in the affirmative and added that both mother and father had to go when it became obvious that though the child was discharged, they could not foot the hospital bill completely. At this point I couldn’t help myself. With angry tears threatening falling down my face, I told the young lady that it was a thing of shame that a government hospital can hold a neonate prisoner because his parents had no money to pay for his treatment. According to her the baby had to be fed infant formula for days while the parents were in town trying their best to raise whatever was due from them to the hospital.
As a mother I felt the pain of this poor woman. Given the choice, no woman would leave her infant child in the care of another, even if it’s her own mother. The special bond between a new born and it’s mother cannot be described by anyone who hasn’t felt it. A mother feels totally bound to that little human and believes that no one can care for it like she does. Yet imagine that same woman having to leave that child alone, with total strangers, because the hospital has detained it due to lack of money.
It’s truly hard to believe. And all this in a country where so much has been stolen by a few individuals that people get incredulous whenever the figures are mentioned. The billions and now trillions of Naira being recovered from looters of our national wealth are so mindboggling that some people can’t even believe such money exists.
But the proof of the looting is there for all to see. In the kinds of homes, cars and lifestyles patronised by our leaders, our political class. We see them anytime a single son or daughter’s wedding translates into tens or even hundreds of millions of naira. We see it when ministers sons donate the latest brands of Mercedes or BMW to their girlfriends, when they have no job to their names besides being the children of privilege.
Do we really think that Almighty God will look the other way when our leaders loot the national treasury and ordinary people know nothing but hunger and suffering and the pains of illness without treatment? How many other patients: neonates, toddlers, adolescents and even adults have been held prisoners in hospitals just because they couldn’t pay for their treatments and the government couldn’t make health care free?
To be continued.