Africa is a continent that invests more in death than saving lives

Tuesday September 28 2021

This last year we have spent billions kitting up Intensive Care Units in regional referral hospitals because we were scared of Covid-19 killing us. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGA


Time for confession: At first I was one of those who castigated Ugandan doctors for charging Covid-19 patients highly and withholding dead bodies of those who succumbed until the full bills were paid. My sincere apologies to the health workers, apology also copied to my Economics lecturers, especially the immediate former vice chancellor and the current chancellor of Makerere University, professors Ddumba-Ssentamu and Ezra Suruma respectively; no more letting them down.

This is a straightforward apology with no sarcasm, no cynicism and certainly no tongue in cheek. With hindsight, I wish the doctors had charged us more highly. Now that we are likely heading into the third wave with no knowing who will survive the damn virus, let us avoid blaming its first victims — the health workers.

If you don’t know Ugandan society, we excel at disrespecting professionals, whom we underpay for their skills and then proceed to ridicule them for not having as much money as traders, politicians and thieves.

We now have so many self-styled motivational speakers courtesy of mobile technology, who dispense advice on how to become rich. These even include ‘aunties’ who teach girls how to rob men.

Many times, these people ridicule doctors for spending years in medical school and conducting lifesaving procedures only to earn in a month what importers of second-hand underwear make in a day. After hearing such lectures on social media so many times, the only doctors who should be abused are those who don't charge patients highly.

How did we end here? It could have started in the 70s when hyper-inflation eroded the value of professionals’ salaries. In the mid-eighties when the first 10,000 shilling note was first introduced, traders loved waving it and mirthfully saying a teacher’s whole month’s pay was in one note.


If you don’t charge such persons stiffly for teaching their children and treating their illnesses, you deserve punishment yourself.

Why should a society that despises its educators and health workers expect a good future? By miracle? No wonder our traders, politicians and thieves pay prosperity preachers and witchdoctors handsomely but demand a decent pay for teachers and nurses. Maybe because nurses wear uniform at work the Ugandan mind thinks of them as schoolgirls who should be content with a few coins for pocket money.

This last year we have spent billions kitting up Intensive Care Units in regional referral hospitals because we were scared of Covid-19 killing us. So we readily paid whatever millions of dollars that the equipment suppliers demanded.

Then the ICUs could not perform even to quarter capacity in many cases, because we did not prepare nurses to work in them. It is like our health policy makers were hearing of critical care nurses and anaesthetists for high dependency sections for the first time like us laypersons.

Now for the withheld corpses. What an opportunity to cure us of our superstitious mentality! You have probably read forwards of the Russian leader who admits inability to comprehend a continent that invests more in death than in life. By withholding the African-Ugandan’s corpse until the deceased’s bills are settled, the hospital managers are teaching the relatives to mobilise resources for what they think is important.

People who let their own child stay out of school for months or forever for lack of a few thousand shillings cannot imagine a corpse staying in the morgue for a week and mobilise millions to quickly get it from there! It would be sad if the episodes of corpse-withholding did not teach us anything about resource mobilization. Maybe it is the next round of the corona third wave that will open our skulls.

It is interesting that so much criticism was aimed at private health facilities. These are private facilities to which nobody is under obligation to take a patient. The public hospitals are everywhere and they belong to the public. So why attack the private hospitals when we have our public ones for which we pay taxes?

In preparation for the third Covid-19 wave, CID all over the country have been directed under some section of the law to investigate overcharging in health facilities. We wish them luck in executing their lawful mandate. Let us pray they also investigate why public facilities are not giving taxpayers the required services.

Joachim Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail:[email protected]