Ebola exposes more than just a creaking health service

Wed, 6 Aug 2014 Source: Sarfo, Naasei Akoto

The incidence of the ebola outbreak and all the terrifying effects of it have really got me very angry but also very sad. Why, in the 21stC have we still got a health service fit for the last century? So far Ghana has been spared the worst, not because of a stellar health service but by dint of luck. Ghana is reasonably far from the eye of the storm of the epidemic but everybody knows, our public health system will fare no better than Liberia, Sierra Leone and the other affected countries are currently managing. Our hope lies in distance keeping us safe not effectiveness of our public healthcare system.

Our past leaders were not forward-thinking. The desire to amass personal wealth at the expense of the wider society meant they did nowhere near enough in building a health service and system robust enough to cope with such outbreaks. In countries where the epidemic is rampaging, it is ignorance and a lack of basic equipment causing that. Every expert will tell you that in the absence of a cure, the next best thing is prevention. People at the forefront of efforts to combat the disease need basic protective equipment. These include gloves and aprons, by far the least expensive yet the first line in any effective defence in containing the spread of the disease. How did it so happen that nearly 60yrs since “fa wo ho di”, such basic needs could become luxuries in short supply in our public health facilities?

I struggle to understand how our political leaders see themselves when they have a moment of quiet to themselves and reflect on the extremely harsh realities ordinary people face just trying to make a living, never mind trying to enjoy some of the nice things in life? Do they see themselves as high-class thieves, which they are for misappropriating public funds including diverting chunks into their personal accounts while services deteriorate or they just ignore it and blame the poor for being poor? Do they not realise that what doesn’t belong to you, if taken, amounts to theft, however they try to rationalise it by claiming it belongs to the government, so ipso facto, it belongs to all of us including them?

And where they do not directly steal it they shamelessly award themselves astronomical amounts in salaries along with all sorts of perquisites while ordinary Joe Public is barely able to scrape a living. I am no latter day socialist advocating equality of wages but it staggers me that a Minister of State drawing salary from the public purse for ostensibly working on behalf of the public could put himself so far out of range in terms of earnings. Let’s be honest here. We say our country is broke. We say public finances are in a dire state. We say we cannot afford many essential services like improving our schools and health service. We say we are unable to pay the police enough to discourage them from soliciting bribing. We’re told there aren’t funds available to make the necessary investments to ensure adequate supply of electricity and water to the entire populace. Our roads are crumbling, our buildings are collapsing, our markets are burning down due to faulty electrical systems causing huge losses to businesses and individuals. Our leaders tell us they are trying hard to improve the lot of Ghanaians but it is hard to believe they actually believe in that when you consider the huge gulf that exist between what they earn and what Joe Public gets. Are they in or out of touch? The reader can discern that for himself.

A Minister of State earns a monthly basic salary of GHC10000; Duty (what duty) allowance of 50% of basic salary making 5000; Special allowance of 30% of basic salary making 3000; Entertainment allowance of 35% making 3500; wardrobe allowance of 10% of basic salary making 1000 making a total of GHC22500. This figure, by my estimate is more than 20 X the average earnings of Joe Public. And these people are supposed to be in public service ostensibly to improve the lot of the public. That is not all. They get 45 gallons of fuel a week, a fully-furnished accommodation, one luxury saloon car, one 4 X 4 cross country Land Cruiser which they nonchalantly use for private errands while servicing them at the public’s expense, a chauffeur, a cook (don’t they eat their wife’s food), one gardener, one steward, one security, police escort and ex-gratia of GHC400,000. Add on per diems they earn for junketing around the globe doing God-knows-what. Add to all these, free use of water, electricity, phones including their cell phones. No wonder a deputy minister of state recently told a gathering in Volta Region that the difficult times are over. Clearly her difficult times are over. How do these people look themselves in the mirror and feel good? By any stretch of the imagination, these figures and remunerations drawn on the public purse are immoral if they can still look Joe Public in the eye and say the country is broke so basic essential services ordinary folks rely on cannot be provided. I think to put it bluntly, this is just high class thievery cloaked in a garb of legitimacy and the people ought to be outraged.

If these so-called leaders believe they really are serving the public, why is such a huge chasm between them and the public not easily obvious to them? Are they blind, heartless or just thick not to notice such an obvious injustice? This is why the potential consequences of this ebola outbreak on ordinary folks and the frontline staff in the combat of it make me angry and sad because we are so unprepared. Unprepared because the leadership required is lacking, not due to any innate inability on our part. Those drawing huge salaries on the public purse ostensibly to help improve the lot of the public are rather busy raping and pillaging it. We have the ability to build a fairer society. We have the ability to ensure provision of services that will help the ordinary man in the street to try to make a living without having to work themselves to death. The vision, dedication and leadership required to ensure that everybody in the land, regardless of their background, ethnicity, education and political persuasion should have the same opportunities and stake in life in the country is woefully lacking.

It should never be the case that one’s ability to access quality basic services such as education and health should be dependent on one’s ability to pay or their ‘connections’ with a ‘big person’. The fact of the matter is that society reaps incalculable benefits from such a system. That is why the Scandinavian countries score highest in standards of living index. Their leaders have always believed in investment in public services, not their individual tummies and family. And ours is a society blessed with everything from natural resources to a good size population to availability of good human resources. I would emphasise once again that I am by no means a latter day socialist or Marxist. I absolutely believe in a meritocratic society. I believe in reward for individual enterprise. I believe in the reward from individual hard-work. I believe in the liberal democratic system of governance where individuals reap the reward for their hard work and sacrifice and can trust the laws of the land and the institutions to protect their rights. In short, I believe in the rule of law, which guarantees all being equal under the law but also rewards individual brilliance and enterprise. However as a social democrat who also believes in fairness for all, it angers me that the system is so skewed in favour of those wielding power and influence by virtue of their political connections but see no reason to use that power and influence for the benefit of the wider society.

If ebola were to break out in many of the developed countries, one could bet their last dollar that the their health system will cope far magnificently, for the simple reason that since time immemorial public health amongst other necessities have been identified as important and the necessary investment and sophistication have been built into the system to ensure it copes. The reason that is the case is because they have always had not just the leadership but the drive and dedication to develop the country for the majority, not the few. Succeeding generations of leaders haven’t seen public service as a route for individual wealth and pursuit of avarice but as an opportunity to etch one’s name in history as a good public servant. Why haven’t we been able to develop such ethos into our moral and political discourse? Why do we adore and hold up public servants who steal, and let’s be clear, stealing is what they do when they appropriate public money for personal gain? There is an element of fear and awe we attach to politicians. We elevate them to demi-god status. We hold them up as if there is something great they can teach us other than theft and greed.

It is to our collective loss that nearly 60yrs since independence, we still haven’t developed the knowledge and sophistication needed to see through the empty vessels and charlatans that many of our political leaders really are.

I conclude by quoting from the extraordinary and eminent Wangari Maathai: “Africa needs a revolution in leadership – not only from the politicians who govern, but from an active citizenry that places its country above the narrow needs of its own ethnic group or community. Those in power …….. have to recognise that the way Africa has been conducting its affairs of state has neither protected nor promoted the welfare of the continent’s citizens nor provided for the long-term growth and stability of its nations.” “This ought to be UNACCEPTABLE to the new leadership in Africa.” Wise words indeed but are our leaders listening?

Columnist: Sarfo, Naasei Akoto