I was angry, not that Ruth Odinga was being treated for a fracture – yes, a fracture – abroad, but that she was a public officer, paid by taxpayers, to fix county healthcare. How can a politician fix healthcare, or even see the need to fix it, if she doesn’t have to use it? And I was angry that the Standard – which sometimes joins the press bandwagon of owning the title of “people’s watchdog” – did not detect the irony.
But then again, the press has been at the forefront of normalizing the idea of Kenyans seeking treatment abroad, to the discomfort of many.
In 2011, Citizen TV ran a report on Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o, then Medical Services Minister, receiving cancer treatment in the US. Johnstone Mwakazi was so enamored by Nyong’o’s heroic triumph against cancer, that he let the irony of the health minister seeking treatment abroad slide. A few months later, Beth Mugo, then Public Health Minister, also returned from the US, inviting Kenyans to rejoice about her triumphant battle against cancer, without telling us what is supposed to happen to the rest of Kenyans diagnosed daily with cancer. The blindness of the press to the fact that it was portraying two politicians in charge of health getting treated abroad – and celebrating it in public! – as heroes, made me so flabbergasted. In June 2011, I presented a conference paper saying that the Kenyan press treats cancer like a personal battle, not a disease that can be socially managed through providing personnel and resources for early diagnosis and treatment.
Then came Jadudi and Janet Kanini-Ikua in 2015. While their need was urgent and Kenyans did the heroic thing to support their treatment in India, once again, the press turned their stories into opportunities to celebrate celebrity and the power of social media. They didn’t ask the hard questions about how often Kenyans could dig into their pockets to raise funds for the next, and the next, and the next cancer victim to seek treatment abroad. And the bad thing about this conversation is that it sometimes makes the person raising the issue look callous and inconsiderate of the individual cancer patients. The witty Pharis Kimaru decided to have a go at it anyway, and the article “Why I don’t stand with Janet,” received mixed reactions.
So when it comes to the mainstream media, there has been a pattern of missing the point and not asking the hard questions about healthcare. But with Pharis’s article, I thought that the majority of the reasonably educated members of Kenya’s social media fraternity would get my beef with Ruth Odinga and the article on her.
Turns out I was dreaming.
What shocks me is not that people disagreed with me, but that they didn’t get my point, and worse, that they defended the Kisumu Deputy Governor’s treatment abroad. Some said it’s her money, she can do with it what she likes. It didn’t occur to them that she’s paid with our taxes, and that the Standard newspaper had not asked who was footing the bill, for us to confidently say that she could do what she wants with her money.
Others said that she probably couldn’t get specialized treatment here, so she had to go abroad, not seeing the irony that it is the responsibility of her, and the rest of the people whom we spend billions of shillings electing, to make sure that the specialized treatment is available in Kenya.
Others did the usual Kenyan thing of asking why I’m raising the issue now, and not when others like Janet and Jadudi did. There was no point telling them that several Kenyans have been raising this issue for years.
Others said that many politicians seek treatment abroad, so Ruth Odinga is not the only one. But her brother Raila Odinga got head surgery at Nairobi Hospital when he was prime minister. Well, it wasn't a public hospital, but at least it was on home turf and with a Kenyan surgeon.
Others...this one wowed me. Some said the problem is with the central government not the county government, as if the two governments are paid by separately different tax payers.
I was so baffled that Kenyans who probably would not have the resources to seek treatment abroad, nor the clout to raise the money in one day through social media, were defending a public officer’s right to avoid the hospitals she’s mandated to support. I asked myself – why defend someone who evidently doesn’t care about you enough to fix your hospitals? The obvious reason is that most Kenyans probably feel that there is no other way out – one must either be rich or die if one gets sick and is poor. And the same politician avoiding your hospital will dance on a dais at your funeral, interrupting the process of your family trying to mourn after you die from not getting emergency or basic services in time.
How can a proud people like us be so complacent in this one thing that matters most to life?
I soon realized that all these responses are united by one major theme: the belief that politicians owe us nothing, that they seek treatment abroad because they deserve to. So if our health services are a mess, politicians and the rich deserve to go to hospitals abroad. If we had the money we’d do the same, but if we don’t have the money, the problem is with us for being poor.
God. This is so painful.
Over 50 years after independence, some of us Kenyans, and the press as well, find traveling abroad for treatment normal. Then why on earth did we become independent if we cannot take care of our own health? When we raised that flag at Uhuru gardens on December 12 1963, it wasn’t just for the right to choose our own leaders with black skin. It was also to take care of our health, our education, our public transport and other social services. Freedom means responsibility. We can’t credibly be considered independent if we cannot treat our sick.
That is why we, the Kenyan people, must demand public services that our politicians can use. We should demand that every politician and family seeks treatment in this country, and takes their kids to schools taught by teachers paid by TSC. If they prefer private social services, they should not run for public office.
Only when the rich and famous get treated here, will we know we are independent. We will know that Kenyatta is truly a national Hospital when it is good enough for the family whose name it carries to be treated in it, not when the family gives their kid one million shillings to go pay hospital bills at Christmas. If getting treated there is not an option, then let’s get a president who can agree to be treated in the country he governs and rename the hospital after him. Or her. If we don’t have specialists to treat a broken leg or to put a cast with orange plaster, we should import them to Kenyatta Hospital or better still, to the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital, so that all those boda boda accident victims can also get treated and put orange casts while the Deputy governor is getting hers, and some medic interns can learn some skills in the process.
I’m told that when public officers in Singapore were required by law to attend public hospitals, the services drastically improved. So this, this, justifying politicians seeking treatment abroad, is unacceptable. It’s our birthright to get top notch healthcare in the country, and the first step towards that goal is in we Kenyans believing it. We should not accept as normal, for any nation that calls itself independent, to be governed by leaders who seek treatment in hospitals outside its own borders.
PS. After writing this article, I saw that Ciku Muiruri did post an article that pointed out the problems in the original one published in the Standard.