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Opinions of Monday, 8 June 2015

Columnist: Anonymous, J C

Angry Ghanaian Surgeon’s letter to the Spanish Embassy

Angry Ghanaian Surgeon’s letter to the Spanish Embassy: A Contrarian’s Viewpoint.

A prominent Ghanaian surgeon was recently denied a visa to go to Spain to present papers at a medical conference. His response to the visa denial was in the form of an open letter to the Deputy Head of Mission (DHM) of the Embassy of Spain, copied to the Spanish Ambassador, angrily denouncing the DHM and generally making demeaning statements about Spain. The letter was published in the Daily Graphic (reproduced in sections below) and generated almost unanimous comments in support of the doctor. A view common to the comments was that the denial was most likely a racist act or showed disrespect for Africans as a whole. All the commenters, mostly Ghanaians, but also other Africans and even some non-Africans indicated their support for the doctor and felt he had struck a blow for the dignity of the African people.

After reading the letter, I am sorry to say I beg to differ with this overwhelmingly positive view of the doctor’s letter. Since my take on the doctor’s response to the visa denial is the opposite of that of so many of my compatriots (indeed, I may be alone at least in publicly disagreeing with his actions), I will try to share the basis of my negative reaction to the letter by providing as detailed an analysis as possible, line by line or paragraph by paragraph, if required, of the esteemed doctor’s missive and indicate why I think it was ill-conceived and inappropriate. His letter starts as follows:

“The Deputy Head of Mission
Embassy of Spain
Accra, Ghana
26th April 2015

Dear Sir:
I applied for a short-term visa to attend a medical conference in Barcelona from 26th April to 29th April 2015 and by your response dated 22nd April 2015 I had been denied an entry visa to your country. As was written in your rejection letter, I have an option of lodging a contentious-administrative appeal at the High Court of Justice of Madrid (Spain) within a two-month deadline counting from the date of serving. Since it is nigh impossible for me to get myself to Madrid and lodge my appeal I have decided to personally write to you for some clarification.
The reasons for denying me an entry visa were that the information regarding the justification for the purpose and conditions of the intended stay was not reliable and also that my intention to leave your country before the expiry of the visa could not be ascertained.
I know it is your prerogative to decide whom to grant a visa to but I feel personally insulted for the reasons you have given for the denial.”
This is where I first parted company with the esteemed doctor. He admits that the DHM has the prerogative to decide to whom a visa should be issued and yet when he exercised that prerogative, the doctor felt personally insulted. The next statements in the letter betrayed the reason for the doctor’s angry reaction:
“I am a highly trained orthopedic surgeon with specialty interest in orthopedic sports medicine and complex joint reconstruction. I have been a doctor for the past 20yrs. My current positions are:
1. Consultant Orthopedic Surgeon at the KorleBu Teaching Hospital.
2. Lecturer at the University of Ghana Medical School
3. Fellow of the West African College of Surgeons
4. Consultant for West Africa Rescue Association WARA. (I treat patients from the expatriate and diplomatic community including quite a number from Spain) I am sure if you were to injure yourself, am the most likely surgeon that you will be referred to.”

One can’t help feeling that the doctor’s anger is explained, in part, by his perception of himself as an exceptionally eminent person, based on his self-description above. He therefore, one would surmise, could not wrap his mind around why the DHM could not have been sufficiently impressed with him to grant him a visa. In ordinary Ghanaian circles, every request by a person of his standing and stature would usually be met with a “Yes sir, Massa”, instead here he was getting an unqualified, unapologetic “No”. Such a response was, I suspect, quite unusual for him and not something he runs into or expects to run into, in his day-to-day life. Indeed, he probably considered it impertinent. Hence his bafflement, evolving into a perceived insult and the resulting anger.

The good doctor goes on to say: “I have attended medical conferences in Germany, Switzerland, South Africa, Japan, Canada, USA and Norway. Incidentally all these countries found my purpose for travelling justifiable except you. The letter of invitation I presented to you was written by a renowned surgeon in Madrid who trained in the same institution as I did in the United States. But I guess you did not find a letter written by such a person credible enough.”

The doctor misses the point here. Every country, including Ghana, has its own criteria for issuing visas. Simply because the USA at one point in time issued the doctor a visa, does not mean he will get one now if he applied to go to the US or that Spain is obliged to issue him a visa because the Japanese once did. Notice also how the doctor expects that because the letter of invitation “was written by a renowned surgeon in Madrid who trained in the same institution as I did in the United States” he expects the DHM to be so impressed with his self-professed equivalence to this noted Spanish doctor such that the DHM would forgo the visa review process as promulgated by the Spanish Foreign Ministry and issue the visa forthwith, officially sanctioned procedures be damned! This is most likely how we would do it here in Ghana. A letter from a “big” man? No problem! We would most likely go ahead and override our own rules and issue the visa ASAP! Unfortunately for him, the DHM, not being trained in the Ghanaian way of doing things, did not allow himself to be bullied by a famous name from Spain and therefore the doctor was shocked, shocked!! The doctor continues: “I find it laughable that you think I will not return to Ghana and end up as an illegal immigrant in Spain where people of my skin tone are treated as second-class citizens. I have a wife and children whom I do not intend to abandon. Although I do not consider myself wealthy, I am very comfortable economically and have investments in property and other assets in Ghana. How did you ever come to the conclusion that I was a flight risk?”

The above statements are easily dismissed based on easily obtainable data. The fact of the matter is that numerous professionals of all stripes and qualifications are to be found amongst the illegal immigrant populations in the US, Canada and Europe. The Europeans and North Americans surely have computerized data on all this, so the doctor’s assertion that he, somehow, by being “comfortably situated, married with children etc.”, may not necessarily impress a DHM who may be looking at a more comprehensive set of data. It should not come as a surprise to anybody that visa reviews these days might take into account information that the average Ghanaian does not even know exists about him or her. If we have been paying attention to the news, it should be obvious that visas are most likely not issued any more based simply on an invitation letter from a prominent person in the host country and that Europe and North America probably have access to information about us that we cannot even begin to guess at and decisions about who to let in and who not to, are not made by the flip of a coin. The doctor continues and goes on to insult and demean both the country and people of Spain:
“May I kindly remind you of some basic facts about your country?
1. The unemployment rate in Spain presently is 25% and youth unemployment tops 50%. Why will I leave a stable job and to go and join the unemployment ranks in your country.
2. From January 2009 to end of 2013, 400,000 Spaniards emigrated to look for work outside of your country. And this is expected to rise in the coming years.
3. Doctors in Spain are the least/worst paid in the whole Euro zone. Why will I want to go work in a country where my counterparts are leaving in droves for economic reasons?
4. In the year 2012, it is on record that 2405 medical doctors applied for certification to work abroad, according to The Medical Spanish Association – a 75% increase compared with 2011. 83% of doctors seek jobs in Europe (mainly the UK and France) and 7% America.
5. In 2009, the Health Ministry warned that there was a shortage and that the country needed around 3,200 more doctors. By 2025, at the present rate the shortfall will be around 25,000. The Spanish government has talked of increasing the number of university and medical school places, as well as making it easier for overseas personnel to work here.”
The amazing thing is that almost all the statistics the doctor cites about why Spain is not a worthwhile permanent destination for him are almost equally true of Ghana, with perhaps one or two exceptions. So, his argument that he would not move to Spain considering its poor situation, is an equally good indirect argument for why he might want to leave Ghana for elsewhere. He is therefore, in essence, arguing that he is indeed a potential flight risk for any countries foolish enough to issue him a visa. But, let us remember that, once he enters Spain and whether he manages to regularize his status or not, he does not have to live or work in “miserable” Spain as he describes it. He could move to more “prosperous” Germany or France, for example. The doctor ought to know this. His visa to Spain is as good as a visa to any other EU country, so all those statistics about Spain are useless in making his case, except to give him the satisfaction of heaping insults on that country.

He continues: “Sir, as a representative of the country of Spain you have failed woefully in your responsibility to promote the interest of your country by denying me a visa. My skill, knowledge and experience will be invaluable to the Spanish people even if I decided not to come back to Ghana. Furthermore my budget for this conference topped € 5000. This is the amount of money that would have been injected into the Spanish economy in a week. Can you imagine the economic loss if all the doctors from all over the world attending this conference were denied entry into Spain? “

The arrogance of these statements are beyond belief. He has the temerity to conflate the Spanish national interest with his being granted a visa. He further assumes to know better than the representatives of the Spanish government what is invaluable to the Spanish people. The doctor expects the DHM to be so impressed by the 5000 Euros that he would inject into the Spanish economy that all the rules and procedures on granting visas should be waived for him. All for 5000 Euros! And then he further makes matters worse by suggesting that, he, in any case, would be an asset to the place, if he deigned to grace the land of Spain with his presence. I am still shaking my head (or choking on my porridge as David Cameron would say) in disbelief at the breath-taking nature of that statement. He does not stop there: “I was due to present two papers and since I was not able to go I have informed the conveners of the conference of my inability to attend. This is an international conference and can you imagine the embarrassment your compatriot doctors will feel when it is announced that I could not present my scientific papers because you denied me a visa? Never mind that I cannot get a full refund for my ticket and my total booking for the hotel is not refundable”.

I can assure the doctor that his absence will cause barely a ripple. Lots of people are denied visas to international conferences all the time. His speaking slot will be given to somebody else and the conference will continue as if he was never invited. Sorry to burst his pride, but those are the facts. As far as losing the refund on his ticket etc., that is the risk we all take when we plan to go to a country that requires a visa. I am sure the doctor is well aware of that. It has probably happened to Americans planning to visit Ghana or Spaniards planning to visit Nigeria.
Finally the doctor writes: “Given the reason for visa rejection, a detailed explanation on which aspects of my application did not provide sufficient evidence that I will return to Ghana is most welcome. I am particularly curious to know of the lofty economic standards set for Ghanaians to visit to Spain when Spaniards themselves barely meet these standards.” This last part of this statement is beneath the dignity of the doctor. Citizens of a country do not have to meet any economic tests to be citizens. If the financial requirements Ghana imposes on foreigners wishing to visit Ghana were to be applied to Ghanaians, I suspect there would be no Ghanaians qualified to live in Ghana. The letter finally ends with the usual salutations that I will not reproduce here.

In conclusion, I’d like to point out that simply because we have corrupted our institutions and money, wealth and prestige can buy us anything we wish, some would say including justice, let us not presume that all other countries are like us. I am willing to bet that Spain has a rigorous, data-driven visa review process in place and that the visa denial was neither arbitrary nor capricious. But even if it were, with so many African migrants risking life and limb to cross the Mediterranean to seek greener pastures in Europe (including “miserable” Spain) as a result of the mess we have made of our continent, the Europeans have every right to tighten their visa granting procedures. Any such tightening is likely to ensnare some innocent victims, perhaps including the doctor. But is it racism to try to protect your borders? Would we allow an uncontrolled influx of, say, Chadians, into Ghana? Have we already forgotten what our fellow black South Africans did to brother black African immigrants not that long ago? Shouting racism when it may not be justified is like the boy who cried “Wolf” too often. It means when we encounter true racism, we are unlikely to know it and from whence it came. And by the way, it is the “racist” European navies (probably including the Spanish one) that are rescuing our kith and kin from certain death in the cold waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Where are the African Navies? Even the few that have open ocean capabilities are nowhere to be found as our compatriots, including babies and pregnant women drown by the thousands.

I’d like to believe that the doctor’s letter was the result an understandable but regrettable emotional outburst by a person who ought to know better but who, with the shock and disappointment of the visa denial uppermost on his mind, did not think about his actions. Another less generous explanation is that because in Ghana we treat doctors like demi-gods, he felt insulted when he was treated like every other person who is looking for a visa. Remember the recent news item reporting that some doctors at KATH turned away a bleeding pregnant woman because they were on strike? That poor woman may be dead now for all we know, but none of these doctors will ever be held accountable. They are free to dispense life and death without any accountability. That is behaviour attributable only to gods and too many (not all) of our doctors believe that is indeed who they are. To be solidly embedded in the upper crust of Ghanaian society as doctors and other professionals are, is to be the object of much deferential treatment (the “do-you-know-who-I-am” syndrome), and it is therefore no surprise that this doctor was shocked that he did not receive same from this “lowly” Deputy Head of Mission. What else would account for this highly educated doctor’s willingness to make such patently offensive and inflammatory statements about a friendly country in public, denigrating and attempting to mock the work of a civil servant who most likely was just doing his job as he was instructed to do and cannot, is not, allowed to fight back? How would we feel if some Englishman published a letter mocking and condemning Ghana and Ghanaians in The Times of London, talking about the filth in Accra, our inability to keep the lights on, the excrement on our beaches, our incessant armed robberies and the almost constant outbreaks of cholera simply because he did not get a visa from the Ghana High Commission in London? And the fact that the doctor was so mightily applauded for this outburst by a large number of the Ghanaian and African commenters only adds to my sense of shame as to what we have become, slavish worshippers at the throne of fame, money and wealth with a complete lack of self-awareness of how silly we appear to outsiders when we go off on these ill-informed rants.

My suggestion to the good doctor is that, next time, he should arrange to organize this conference in Ghana. He would then have no visa problems and all the resulting foreign exchange and economic benefits he is so eager to bestow upon poor Spain, will accrue to Ghana instead. Our sinking economy could surely use the injection of his 5000 Euros. The condition of Spain’s economy and the situation of its peoples, on the other hand, should be the very least of his and our concerns as if we do not have enough problems of our own to worry about.