Could COVID reduce medical travel from Nigeria?

 

Nigeria’s politicians and state employees regularly travel overseas for medical treatment. This is why moves to restrict outbound medical tourism or improve the poor state of Nigeria’s healthcare have been half-hearted.

Politicians could take themselves and their extended families to India, USA, UK or elsewhere for cheap medical care, and so only played lip service to healthcare reforms and bringing in universal healthcare.

Despite being one of the richest countries in Africa, Nigeria has remained one of the countries in the world with the worst healthcare system. The country has one of the worst cancer survival rates in the world, with only 2-3 cancer radiotherapy machines working at any time and less than 70 oncologists for a population of over 200 million.

However, many affluent patients are currently trapped in the country, unable to travel due to COVID-19 restrictions and are forced to use local health facilities.

Even if they could, with the USA and India still with high COVID-19 infection rates, few Nigerians would consider travelling there for treatment, possibly for many months. The UK private sector is slowly recovering buy daily changes to quarantine rules make it very hard for Nigerians to plan a UK visit. Dubai is one of the few open destinations, but costs are high when compared to India, particularly if the individual rather than the Nigerian government is paying. Dubai and Saudi Arabian hospitals are advertising in Abuja and Lagos for Nigerian patients; they are also recruiting Nigerian doctors, including consultants.

In 2017, President Muhammadu Buhari spent 103 days in London receiving medical treatment for an undisclosed illness, spending taxpayers’ money despite repeated promises of investing in the country’s healthcare. A third of the US$1 billion that Nigerians spend annually on medical tourism could establish one heart centre, one kidney centre and one cancer centre for each of the six geopolitical zones in Nigeria. It could create 18 new centres of healthcare excellence, with a potential for stopping and reversing medical tourism.

The federal government does not yet have a detailed healthcare plan for the next five years. Nigeria’s national budget for healthcare in 2020 works out at just US$5.40 for each Nigerian. In some states in Nigeria, a hospital is a 20-minute boat ride and an hour-long car ride.

This could be the time Nigeria confronts its healthcare crisis. Doctors are pushing for the long promised law to restrict all public officials from seeking medical care abroad. Politicians threw out the last bill that proposed this on the grounds that it breached their human rights.

Nigeria has reopened borders. Entry rules are strict, as all must have a negative PCR test, quarantine for seven days upon arrival, and then perform another PCR test on the seventh day to end quarantine. Only a few flights are yet available, and outbound medical tourists will have to quarantine on their return.

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