By Andrew Nsoseka, JADE
On its May 28, 2021 weekender edition, The Post reported a pathetic story of a family running away from the incessant raids in the Bui Division of Cameroon’s Northwest region. The news article by Chris Mbunwe narrated the sad story of a teacher, Oliver Lankar who, in escaping from the turbulent Division, lost his one-year-old baby due to the heavy rains and cold.
Though one could be incorrect to say that the refuge-seeking man could have sought medical help from community volunteers working with an organisation like Doctors Without Borders- providing medical assistance to those in dire need, Lankar’s family did not have that option – it was ripped from people like him and a multitude of others, when DWB, one if not the only organisation providing free service to those in need in the Northwest region had its activities suspended by the Region’s Governor’s Decision way back on December 8, 2020.
On December 8, 2020, the Governor of the Northwest Region, Adolphe Lele Lafrique issued a prefectorial order, suspending activities of Doctors Without Borders, one of the front-line organisations providing free healthcare services to thousands of victims and those affected in one way or the other by the Anglophone crisis in the two crisis-hit regions.
In the article (I) of the Governor’s Decision suspending the activities of DWB, the Governor said, “The partnership between Doctors Without Borders (DWB, MSF) and Saint Maria Soledad Catholic Hospital Bamenda, as well as similar partnerships with other health facilities in the Northwest Region, are with effect from the date of signature of this Decision, suspended, pending definition of the framework of activities for Doctors Without Borders (DWB, MSF) by the Ministry of Health.”
Locals in the region, especially those displaced by war, and who now live under precarious conditions are the main beneficiaries of health services offered by DWB. These categories of persons are the region’s most vulnerable. Suspending the activities of DWB, was an act that directly affected the main beneficiaries of the services offered by the organisation. The right to health has been denied, especially to those in distress situations who struggle to feed and can barely afford their needs, especially health needs which are expensive and with a greater percentage of those in need, not having access to any health insurance.
DWB often prioritises the providence of its services to hard-to-reach communities, and with the current Anglophone crisis, many communities are without health facilities especially as many owners of private clinics were hunted down on accusations that they treat or sell medicaments to separatists too.
In 2020, DWB reported that it provided over 120,000 free medical consultations in the Northwest and Southwest region of Cameroon. Unfortunately, with the Governor’s Decision, the thousands of patients in the Northwest who relied on these free health services can’t access them anymore, as the Governor said the organisation’s framework of activities are to be defined by the Ministry of Public Health, a process which has taken the several months, with no sign that the organisation will be given the go-ahead, to continue its work of providing healthcare services to the most vulnerable, caught between an active war, and now a health pandemic.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in its Article 25, (1.) says “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
Paragraph (2) of article 25 furthers that Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.” Among other beneficiaries of DWB’s services, are pregnant women, who often need care, and even in the middle of the night, neutral bodies like DWB help transport them safely to health facilities where they can have their babies under safe medical conditions.
The African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, in its Article 16,(1), says “Every individual shall have the right to enjoy the best attainable state of physical andmental health.” It furthers in paragraph (2), to state that, “State parties to the present Charter shall take the necessary measures to protect the health of their people and to ensure that they receive medical attention when they are sick.” The state of Cameroon has not only failed to provide this vital assistance to its citizens in the Northwest region, but by banning activities of an organisation offering it, it has actively facilitated the curtailing of health services to those who cannot afford it.
On its part, the World Health Organisation, to which Cameroon is a member, in its Constitution (1946) envisages “…the highest attainable standard of health as a fundamental right of every human being.”
Speaking about access to health in the Northwest region, the Director of the Bamenda Regional Hospital, Dr Denis Nsame regretted that that the hospital keeps losing money because many patients can’t afford to pay their bills after treatment. This, of course, is the category that because of the war situation and its effect on their livelihoods, previously depended on free services offered by organisations like DWB.
The Regional Hospital Director revealed that just in the first quarter of 2021, the hospital has lost FCFA Nine million because many patients are unable to pay bills. The situation which aggravated with the armed conflict now puts the regional hospital, as well as other health facilities in an uncomfortable financial situation.
On the part of the community, many who now do not have the option to receive free quality healthcare are now left with the option of either trying untested home remedies; taking a chance to be treated and held back by the hospital, or just hoping to get well someday. Many others who have seemingly lost hope, now resort to cuing up in churches that advertise miracle healings, even for illnesses that are cured medically.
One of the community leaders who recently took the initiative to address the situation, is the Mayor of Bamenda II Council, Peter Chenwi, who said his office has been flooded recently by appeals for assistance to pay health bills. “The request for assistance from patients keep rising every day. That is why the Council decided to undertake this visit and see the situation of patients at the Bamenda regional hospital” the Mayor said. He reveals that so far, the council, in its efforts to remedy the situation paid FCFA one million, covering the hospital bills of 64 patients who could not leave the hospital because of unpaid bills. Amongst the persons concerned, were women who had put to birth, but could not pay their hospital bills.
A Community Health Worker, talking of the ban on DWB’s activities in the Northwest said, “Since the suspension, many children have died in my community, due to the lack of medication. People don’t have the money to go to the hospital. They keep asking me; when will they (DWB) come back” He recounts. Other community workers who served the community under DWB regret that the suspension has left them with no means to assist the people, who depend on such services.
“People keep calling me for help, but there is no mean to help them anymore. They go back, and later on, you hear that some of them died. It is terrible.” Another community health worker in the region regrets it.
Though not mentioned publicly, government sources claim that DWB’s activities in the region are suspended due to allegations that it also treats wounded separatists. Information from DWB’s data however shows that just about five percent of its patients bring cases that are directly linked to violence. The statistics rather show that most of the patients are children with malaria, pregnant women, accidents, and sexual violence victims.
In a statement released after a meeting with government officials recently to end the suspension, DWB said “After three weeks of meetings with several Ministries the visit of Médecins Sans Frontières’ (MSF) Director-General to Cameroon did not lead to the resumption of its medical activities in the Northwest region, where the international NGO has been barred from providing medical services for over five months.
“While the visit has come to an end, discussions will continue in the coming days to try to find a swift resolution to this situation.” The statement partly read.
After the meeting, DWB’s Director-General, Stephen Cornish, remarked that “While our visit to Cameroon was an opportunity to address key points, no agreement was unfortunately reached to immediately restart our lifesaving medical services in the Northwest region. This is disappointing, but we remain hopeful that the lifting of our suspension can be reached in the coming days. Discussions will go on as all stakeholders understand that our operations cannot remain on hold indefinitely. Every extra day of suspension is another day that we cannot assist the population in dire need of health care services. An agreement will undeniably change the situation for the better in the provision of essential care in the Northwest. We are confident that such agreement is still attainable and will allow us to provide essential medical services in Northwest just as we do elsewhere in the country.”