African Presidents and overseas medical treatments: Medical tourism perspective

African Presidents and overseas medical treatments: Medical tourism perspective

The appetite of African Presidents to consume overseas medical treatments remains robust. The latest news is that Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, has returned back to Luanda after spending a month in Spain for medical treatment.

Angola confirmed for the first time on Monday that 74-year-old President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, its leader of the last 38 years, was in Spain for medical reasons. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has a legendary track record of preferring Asian countries such as Malaysia and Singapore for medical treatment. Edgar Lungu, Michael Sata, Banda Ruphia, former and current Presidents of Zambia who have all have come to South Africa for medical attention. The report says Bakuli Muluzi of Malawi and opposition leaders from the DRC Moise Katumbi and the late Etienne Tshikeli have also sought medical help in South Africa. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s usually goes to London for medical treatment.

Africa has lost a number of heads of state with some dying in foreign countries and corruption and failure in investing in health care systems are reasons attributed to this situation. Only a few of the 54 African states have medical facilities that their leaders can use. The medical tourism industries of the countries that they visit, benefit disproportionally from their expenditure, during the stay at the medical tourism destination. South Africa has a well-developed private healthcare system, which could be used by African Presidents instead of going overseas. Medical tourism is a form of special interest tourism, which has grown in leaps and bounds. Developing countries with their lower costs have attracted customers from developed countries, offering First World treatments at Third World prices.

After medical procedures, medical tourists can enjoy the beautiful tourism gems of South Africa, increasing the length of stay, and geographical spread. The growth of medical tourism can drive research and development benefiting innovation. Medical tourism caters for cosmetic surgery, dentistry, organ transplants, cardiology/cardiac surgery, orthopaedic surgery such as hip replacements and joint surgery. Medical tourism has been able to reverse the medical intellectual brain drain that has negatively impacted on developing countries especially Africa.

Today, developing countries are benefiting from inward investment that is creating medical facilities that caters for the growth of medical tourism. This increases the pool of health professionals in a country, reversing the brain drain. This is only achieved when operating licenses are granted for medical tourism practitioners, to try and match demand with supply of human resources. Countries such as India, Singapore, Cuba, Dubai and South Africa have grown their share of medical tourism receipts. Many SADC countries use South Africa as their base for medical treatments because of the poor state of their public healthcare systems. East and West Africa’s medical tourism to South Africa continues to struggle because of the military operation of the visa system. It remains easier to acquire an American visa than a South African visa.


South Africa is one of the few African countries that has legalised abortion, which benefits from inward migration for a procedure illegal in other countries. Switzerland benefits from thousands of visitors that seek to consume active euthanasia, whilst suicide is increasingly performed by those that suffer because active euthanasia is illegal. Cannabis is South Africa’s green gold as it is one of the major illegal exports, but South Africa choses to prosecute cannabis production. The Cannabis in Africa report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime acknowledges that 99% of the cannabis consumed in Ireland comes from South Africa. Imagine the benefit to the country if cannabis commercial production was legal.

American states benefit from cannabis taxation, increased entrepreneurship and cannabis tourists, whilst our state choses to appeal the decision of the Western Cape High Court. Legalisation of cannabis would lead to widespread production and export that would make unemployment and poverty a rumour. Cannabis oil production would increase, leading to its price reduction, to the benefit of millions of cancer suffers. Amartya Sen in his classical work Development as Freedom noted “that development is the process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy…Development requires the removal of major sources of unfreedom”. The promotion of health tourism can benefit destinations by giving them an improved healthcare system, which can be used by African Presidents. Universal healthcare is a form of freedom that the state must provide for its citizens, and African Presidents must be at the forefront of this.

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Unathi Sonwabile Henama teaches tourism at the Tshwane University of Technology and writes in his personal capacity


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