By Ehichioya Ezomon
As Nigeria remains largely an onlooker in the search for remedies to combat the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19, the reality of the nation’s healthcare system is brought starkly home by President Muhammadu Buhari jetting out on March 30, 2021, for nearly a three-week medical trip to London.
It’d be about the sixth of such medical tours since he assumed office in May 2015, and the sojourn comes on the eve of a nationwide strike by members of the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) over myriad of unavoidable issues affecting the doctors and the healthcare system in general.
The NARD gave adequate notice for its protest, and yet, the president, without seeing to the resolution of the issues at play in these COVID-19 health-challenging times, chose to ignore the imminent strike and embarked on his medical check-up.
There’s nothing out of place for public officials to seek medical treatments abroad, and certainly nothing against Buhari performing a yearly ritual pre-dating his second coming as a democratically-elected chief executive of Nigeria, as the routine was obviously disrupted in 2020 with the spread of the COVID-19 globally.
But when the matter involves the president, the frequency of the trips, the secrecy of the ailment(s), the length of time spent and the unaccounted-for public funds expended, it becomes of great concern in a nation with competing demands for scarce resources.
More disquieting to polity watchers is that Buhari, as a candidate for president, campaigned against medical tourism, and promised to fix Nigeria’s healthcare system if elected into office.
Buhari reportedly took the campaign to London, and declared that he’d not seek foreign treatment as president, nor fly private to destinations, but board commercial flights as other Nigerians.
Addressing the Nigerian community in the United Kingdom on February 21, 2015, Buhari identified waste, second only to corruption, as the “major killers” of Nigeria’s economy, noting that “our scarce resources are being plundered away very carelessly and unnecessarily wasted.”
Pledging to tackle the menace by being frugal, Buhari rhetorically asked the audience: * What is the difference between me and those who elected us to represent them? Absolutely nothing! * Why should Nigerian President not fly with other Nigerian public? * Why do I need to embark on a foreign trip as a president with a huge crowd with public funds? * Why do I need to go to foreign medical trip if we cannot make our hospital functional?
But since attaining the presidency in 2015, has Buhari fulfilled any or all of those promises? Yes, only in the breach! What Nigerians have witnessed in Buhari’s government is a total repudiation of his sacred promises made en route to the Presidential Villa in Abuja.
Let’s supply answers, one by one, to his Socratic posers at the meeting with the Nigerian community in the UK in 2015: Till date, Buhari maintains a distance from Nigerians – he rarely leaves the Villa – to differentiate between him and those that elected him.
Besides the Villa, London has become the second home to the president, as he’s spent more days, weeks and months in the English capital than in his hometown of Daura in Katsina State.
He doesn’t fly with other Nigerians, but retains a fleet of aircraft and flies a presidential jet, which, when he’s outside the country, is parked at the tarmac, as long as the trip lasts, oblivious of the huge parking fees running into thousands of hard currencies.
He embarks on foreign trips, with a huge crowd, with public funds. And he goes on foreign medical trips because Nigerian “hospitals are not functional.” The totality of doing the opposite of what Buhari had promised is increasing the waste he said he’d curtail.
The parlous state of the country’s healthcare system in the past six years on Buhari’s watch has prompted increasing medical tourism by Nigerians, thus exerting a huge drain on limited resources.
As Buhari undertakes yet another medical tour, The Guardian, on Wednesday, March 31, ran its front page lead story on Nigeria losing over N576 billion ($1.2 billion) yearly to medical tourism.
Quoting the NARD and other local and international bodies, the report says that the N576 billion lost to medical tourism yearly in Nigeria “is about N100 billion less than the N632.7 billion allocated to the health sector in the 2021 budget.”
It’s mind-numbing to realize that the vast amount on yearly medical tourism, as experts reckoned, could result in “adequate funding of the system, improved healthcare facilities, better remuneration and motivation for health workers, adequate training, improved medical research,” and a drastic reduction in brain drain and more.
Back to COVID-19. Agreed the virus caught the world unawares. China that bears the burden of its origin didn’t see it coming. The pandemic was named “novel coronavirus,” to distinguish it from other viruses of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), such as influenza, commonly called “the flu”, with symptoms similar to COVID-19’s, ranging from “mild to severe and often include fever, runny nose, sore throat, muscle pain, headache, coughing, and fatigue,” and with massive deadly outcomes.
But finding COVID-19 remedies – in treatment and prevention – didn’t take the world by surprise. Though having divergent views on their effectiveness, scientific and medical researchers, and institutions and governments simply tested, and adopted existing therapies, such as Chloroquine, Hydroxichloroquine, Remdesivir and Ivermectin, for tackling pathogens that exhibit characteristics similar to or of the nature of coronavirus.
While other countries adopted these treatments against the ravaging pandemic in their populations, Nigeria never specifically, albeit publicly, chose a particular or a combination of therapies for managing and controlling the disease.
Not even Ivermectin that “seems to be a Nigerian drug,” used to “treat infections in the body that are caused by certain parasites,” was considered until a few weeks ago.
That’s when Vice President Yemi Osinbajo disclosed that a group of Nigerian scientific and medical researchers had come together to evaluate applying Ivermectin as a possible remedy for COVID-19.
You would want to ask: Where were these researchers since February/March 2020 when the pandemic surfaced to threaten the human race? Or did it take that long to study “Ivermectin” that other nations had adopted, at least as a stop gap, for many months?
Perhaps, it’s something to do with the “un-seriousness” of the Nigerian government and its leaders to the issue of healthcare and wellbeing of the citizens that form the actual wealth of the nation!