By Ephraim Munthali – Cut The Chuff (Weekend Nation)

It was a public relations stunt that was as well choreographed as the mismanagement of the health care system itself.

Presiding over the meeting was none other than a relaxed Head of State, President Joyce Banda, flanked by a grim-faced Economic Planning and Development Minister Goodall Gondwe, composed Vice-President Khumbo Kachali, a seemingly attentive Health Minister Catherine Gotani-Hara, a cautiously optimistic Finance Minister Ken Lipenga and a bureaucratic Chief Secretary to Government Bright Msaka.

The meeting, held at Kamuzu Palace in Lilongwe, pooled Cabinet ministers and health administrators from across the country to deal with the drug crisis that is causing needless deaths; forced 15 doctors and consultants from Kamuzu Central Hospital to publish an open letter, essentially telling the President that her administration’s incompetence is costing lives.

I wonder how much it cost to bring all those delegates to the meeting, but I am sure that the money spent, had it been used to buy drugs, would have saved some lives.

That State House rally was unnecessary, especially considering that the President had a similar gathering at the same venue last December to discuss the health sector where Mrs. Banda, among other decisions, cancelled emergency contracts to buy cholera, malaria and diabetes drugs.

The President cannot pretend that she needed all those people at the Monday meeting to understand the problem or solve it. If she was not aware of it then we have bigger problems than just drug shortages.

For several months, the media, especially Nation Publications Limited (NPL) brands, have been awash with drug scarcity stories through persistent reporting on the worsening shortage of medicines and deteriorating standards of health service delivery in public hospitals.

But then, I hear the President has vowed not to read local papers because they are disrespectful to her—Read that to mean ‘critical’ of the way she conducts herself as a leader and the manner in which she runs the country, more or less like a small mandasi hawker.

But if she had political and communications advisers worth their salt, they would have alerted her far much earlier to the impending crisis, but they were so busy arranging her Santa agenda of distributing free maize flour and fertiliser that they forgot to look at the bigger picture—keeping her up to speed on national issues and planning proactive strategies to avert them not only to save the country, but also to protect and enhance the Joyce Banda brand.

Instead, the poor woman has been reduced to leading the country through reactive and haphazard ways—almost always with news cameras in tow.

In this specific case, she could simply have huddled with the ministers who flanked her at the Monday meeting, the Chief Secretary, Secretary to the Treasury and Secretary for Health and make an informed decision.

The other part of the argument is: Did the administration have to wait for doctors to send an SOS? Did innocent people have to die first, leaving widows, orphans and other loved ones behind?

Granted, the three-year suspension of drug procurement at the Central Medical Stores Trust as it was undergoing reforms is a key part of the problem.

But we know that the Ministry of Health allowed public hospitals to buy from private suppliers as an alternative, albeit an expensive one.

The high cost of getting drugs from private suppliers coupled with the budget-eroding devaluation after prices escalated, led to the accumulation of arrears (of course, mismanagement at the hospitals also played a role and must be investigated).

But despite these problems, the Ministry of Health never saw the problems hospitals were experiencing as an impending crisis needing urgent attention.

And Mrs. Banda cannot continue hiding in the closet, labelled, ‘I inherited the crisis,’ whenever she has failed to do her job. The President must settle down, devote her time to the issues that matter to the nation and she will not have to rely on handouts to win votes in 2014.

Were the late president Bingu wa Mutharika around, he would have testified that the works of his hands worked wonders after a sterling performance in the first five years, but the same works of his hands led him to destruction in his second term.

On that note, let me congratulate President Banda on her award of an honorary doctorate degree—a free PhD so to speak.

I am sure she earned it, having been a good school girl of historically disastrous neo-liberal economic policies that have been rejected across the globe, but which the IMF imposes on poor countries with weak leadership.

It helps the Bretton Woods twins (IMF and World Bank) to claim relevance as they face a barrage of legitimacy questions and their international stature-get eroded and discredited by the failure of their policy prescriptions.

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