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Thumbs down madame: You’re to blame for the drug shortages Ma’am

The local media was two weeks ago awash with stories about the critical situation in the government hospitals where patients are said to be dying from curable diseases due to shortage of drugs.

It all started when a group of doctors from the government hospitals sent an SOS through a petition in the newspapers alerting the government on the crisis, pleading with the president to urgently address the matter and save people from avoidable deaths.

The Daily Times newspaper even unearthed more on the woes in the government hospitals when it carried pictures of sickly children crammed on hospital beds in an overcrowded ward.

It was only after the doctors' and newspaper revelations that Minister of Health Catherine Gotani Hara and Central Medical Stores CEO Feston Kaupa admitted that there was indeed a calamity in the public health sector which, according to them, had run out of 95 percent of the required stock of medicine.

As all these events were unfolding, President Joyce Banda was in some part of South Korea receiving an honorary doctorate degree in economics "for the efforts she has made to recover the Malawi economy".

Clearly feeling guilty at her absence at the time of such a crisis, the president rushed to hold an open meeting with district health officers (DHO) and other senior government officials to discuss the crisis where she pretended that she knew about the problems in the hospitals.

And in what has become of a trademark of her leadership, she went ahead to blame the shortages on the previous government, stating that she found the problem when she entered State House 10 months ago.

I listened with keen interest the MBC Radio One re-broadcast of the meeting the president had with the doctors where the health professionals candidly narrated the situation in the public health facilities, how the problems started and suggested on how the crisis could be addressed.

One DHO cited underfunding of a drug budget at his hospitals, saying while the figure of this year was slightly higher than the previous year's, it was well below what he received in 2010 when, he said, he was well funded and managed to procure a reasonable amount of drugs to meet the hospital's needs.

He also said that although the budget was cut in 2011, he could still manage to acquire some drugs and that the situation did not reach a crisis level as was the case presently.

Another doctor specifically mentioned the devaluation of the kwacha as the main cause of the drug crisis in the hospitals, saying the loss in the value of the local currency had eroded their buying power since prices of medicines had sharply gone up while their funding remained intact.

However, the president clearly refused to accept the reasons raised by the practitioners on the ground and instead chose to blame the previous administration for the crisis. My foot!

First of all, is it not the responsibility of the sitting government to address an inherited problem, especially when lives of thousands of children, women and men are at risk of being lost such as the shortage of drugs in hospitals?

If she really knew about the crisis as she claimed during a meeting with the DHO, why did she wait for 10 months until the doctors published the plea for her to think of addressing the crisis?

Why didn't her government use the 2012/2013 budget to increase funding for the hospitals and ensure that live saving medicines are available in the government hospitals?

Was it not obvious that following the now over 100 devaluation and subsequent floatation of the kwacha prices of medicine would go up and drug budgets of hospitals would have to be increased substantially for them to just be able to buy drugs as acquired in the previous year?

While it is well appreciated that the government is implementing an "austerity" budget as efforts are being made to recover the economy, it is the responsibility of the president and her administration to realise that cost cutting measures are not implemented on critical social services such as health.

If the president was really aware about the drug crisis in the public hospitals, she should have taken it as a personal responsibility to ensure that enough funding is available for acquisition of the medicine for the hospitals, taking into full consideration the devaluation of the local currency.

There are many areas in the government spending lines where austerity could have been implemented to ensure that essential services such as hospitals are well funded while maintaining a balanced overall national budget.

Instead, the president has chosen to cut spending on social services while increasing and even overspending on budgets for non-essential things such as her own local and foreign travelling as well as compensating public officers fired for simply belonging to a tribe of her predecessor.

It is you, ma'am, and nobody else who shoulders the full blame for the death toll in the government hospitals as you continue to extravagantly spend funds, which could have been used to buy medicine for their ailments, on aimless travels that seem to have been spared on the austerity list.

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