Can high-profile coronavirus deaths change health systems?


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The deaths of several African ministers due to COVID-19 have sparked a conversation about the need to strengthen local health care facilities that were largely neglected before the pandemic.

So far in 2021, South Africa, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, and Malawi have all lost cabinet ministers to the pandemic.

These high-profile deaths have led to concerns that health care systems may be overwhelmed due to a second wave of the coronavirus and the possible spread of a new, more transmissible COVID-19 variant that was first detected in South Africa and has now been found in six other African countries: Botswana, Comoros, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, and Zambia.

Politicians in these countries often bypass local health systems and seek care elsewhere. In 2019, former Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe died in Singapore after receiving treatment in the city-state for several months.

In the same year, current Zimbabwe Vice President Constantino Chiwenga spent four months in China receiving medical treatment for an unknown illness.

But COVID-19 has closed borders and made travel impossible, meaning even those in positions of relative privilege have had to rely on the overtaxed health systems in their own countries.

Fungisai Dube, executive director at Citizens Health Watch — a local organization in Zimbabwe that monitors health care delivery in public and private hospitals — said that the health care system in the country was “ill-equipped” to deal with the pandemic because of lack of investment.

“The spread of COVID-19 — even amongst the political elites, such as cabinet ministers, army generals, and captains of industry — reminds us that nobody is safe until everyone is safe.”

“The death of the ministers, for me, is noteworthy because ordinarily they could have gotten health care elsewhere. … But this time, they had to go to the facilities that they have neglected for years, and they wanted those facilities to perform miracles, which was not possible,” she said.

“We have tended to label local health facilities as more for the poor, for those that can’t go to India, that can’t go to South Africa or China or some other countries.”

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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.

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