Coronavirus shutdowns keep African elite from seeking medical care abroad

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Africa’s coronavirus travel ban is making it difficult for rulers and rich people to fly abroad for emergency medical care, as they've done in the past.

For years, leaders from Benin to Zimbabwe have received medical care outside of Africa while their own poorly funded health systems limp from crisis to crisis, The Associated Press reports.

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.”

But that option could be narrowing as 30 of Africa’s 57 international airports have closed or severely limited flights, the AP reports.

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Perhaps “COVID-19 is an opportunity for our leaders to reexamine their priorities,” said Livingstone

Monday, Aug. 13, 2018, file photo, Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa, right, sits with his Deputy Constantino Chiwenga, left, during a Heroes' Day event in Harare, Zimbabwe. 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 but as global travel restrictions tighten, they might have to take their chances at home. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi, File)

Monday, Aug. 13, 2018, file photo, Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa, right, sits with his Deputy Constantino Chiwenga, left, during a Heroes' Day event in Harare, Zimbabwe. 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 but as global travel restrictions tighten, they might have to take their chances at home. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi, File)

Sewanyana of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, which has long urged African countries to increase health care spending.

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The grounding of Africa’s wealthy comes with the World Health Organization warning of an “imminent surge” of COVID-19 cases in Africa.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus delivered the warning in a teleconference with African heads of states, the New York Post reported Saturday.

Africa has more than 7,700 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with South Africa one of the hardest-hit countries, according to the paper.

A frequent overseas traveler, Cameroon’s 87-year-old leader, President Paul Biya, faces rising criticism over his public absence since the virus spread to his country. Cases in Cameroon lept Friday to over 500, the second-most in the sub-Saharan region after South Africa.

While travel restrictions have grounded the merely wealthy, political analyst Alex Rusero said a determined African leader probably could still find a way to go abroad for care.

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“They are scared of death so much they will do everything within their disposal, even if it’s a private jet to a private hospital in a foreign land,” said Rusero, who is based in Zimbabwe, whose late President Robert Mugabe often sought treatment in Asia.

Perhaps nowhere is the situation bleaker than in Zimbabwe, where the health system has collapsed. Even before the pandemic, patients’ families were often asked to provide essentials like gloves and clean water. Doctors reported using bread bags to collect patients’ urine.

Zimbabwe’s vice president, Constantino Chiwenga, departed last month for unrelated medical treatment in China, as the outbreak eased in that country. Zimbabwe closed its borders days later after its first virus death.

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Chiwenga has since returned -- to lead the country’s coronavirus task force.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.