Wed | Jul 8, 2020

African elite who once sought treatment abroad grounded due to COVID

Published:Saturday | April 4, 2020 | 1:03 PM
In this August 19, 2017, file photo released by the Nigeria State House, Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari (centre) walks upon his arrival at the airport in Abuja, Nigeria, after returning from more than three months in London for medical treatment. (Sunday Aghaeze/Nigeria State House via AP, File)

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The coronavirus pandemic could narrow one gaping inequality in Africa, where some heads of state and other elite jet off to Europe or Asia for health care unavailable in their nations.

As countries including their own impose dramatic travel restrictions, they might have to take their chances at home.

For years, leaders from Benin to Zimbabwe have received medical care abroad while their own poorly funded health systems limp from crisis to crisis.

Several presidents, including ones from Nigeria, Malawi and Zambia, have died overseas.

The practice is so notorious that a South African health minister, Aaron Motsoaledi, a few years ago scolded, “We are the only continent that has its leaders seeking medical services outside the continent, outside our territory. We must be ashamed.”

Now a wave of global travel restrictions threatens to block that option for a cadre of ageing African leaders.

More than 30 of Africa’s 57 international airports have closed or severely limited flights, the US State Department says.

At times, flight trackers have shown the continent’s skies nearly empty.

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Perhaps “COVID-19 is an opportunity for our leaders to reexamine their priorities,” said Livingstone Sewanyana of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, which has long urged African countries to increase health care spending.