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Opinions of Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Columnist: African Spectrum

The Otumfuo’s Moral Obligation

The Okomfo Anokye Hospital is falling apart. Conditions at the Kumasi hospital have been going downhill over the years, but, despite the central role the facility plays in the healthcare needs of the people of Ashanti and beyond, both the central government in Ghana and the local authority have remained largely indifferent. Now the situation has reached crisis proportions and the question is: should the Otumfuo Nana Osei Tutu II play a more active role in saving the hospital? We are afraid the stakes are too high for him to do any less. The only general hospital in Ashanti must be saved one way or another, even if it takes the unorthodox intervention of a traditional ruler to do so.

Once the pride of Ashanti, the Okomfo Anokye Hospital, a.k.a. GEE, which boasted gleaming modern architecture and up-to-date medical equipment, is now a grimy, smelly, decaying, rundown shell of its former self. The buildings and installations have fallen into disrepair: the window panes are cracked or broken; the paint is discolored and peeling off; the floor and wall tiles have come unstuck; the toilet facilities are disgusting to behold and seldom work; the floors are dirty. To say that general maintenance at the hospital is shoddy would be a classic understatement.

Besides the degraded state of the hospital plant itself, today’s Okomfo Anokye as a medical institution is a tragic farce. Ironically, it has become a place where people go to die rather than where they go to be saved. Because it takes nearly an eternity for doctors and nurses to see them, it’s not uncommon for patients to drop dead while waiting in line – a problem that could be solved simply by introducing the triage system in the emergency room whereby the most critically ill or injured patients would be given priority instead of those who checked in first.

Even more appalling, pregnant women, their faces contorted with excruciating childbirth pain, are sometimes arbitrarily and cruelly turned away on the grounds that their babies were not due yet. It appears that doctors and nurses at the hospital are not particularly interested in finding out what might be wrong with the poor women, some of whom go home to die soon afterward as a direct consequence of their being denied attention or treatment by the medical staff who are probably dissatisfied with their own circumstances and tend to take out their frustrations on innocent patients. And to round off the litany of problems at the big medical facility, items as basic to the operation of a hospital as wheelchairs and beds are now luxuries at the hospital, available only to VIPs and those who can afford or are willing to pay bribes.

The terrible conditions at the Okomfo Anokye call for bold and immediate action starting with the rehabilitation of the buildings and equipment. But how is this going to be accomplished with both the government and the municipal authority in Kumasi – the two governmental entities which should legally be responsible for maintaining the hospital – unwilling or unable to help? We think the only hope for salvation for the hospital is the Otumfo, even though the king has also shown a troubling detachment from the issue. As the traditional ruler of Asanteman, Nana Osei Tutu II has a moral, if not a legal, obligation to seek the welfare of his subjects. And what better way for the Otumfo to meet this social obligation than saving a hospital in his jurisdiction that is in trouble mainly due to neglect?

Who picks up the tab for the rehabilitation project? This may come across as a somewhat radical concept, but the Asanteman treasury should be in a position to fund such an effort. Thanks to agreements reached with the British back in the colonial days and honored by sovereign Ghana, the Kingdom of Ashanti receives a substantial share of the revenue accruing from the rich gold mining operations at Obuasi and Konongo. In addition, rent and taxes from stool lands and other real estate generate a healthy income for the kingdom’s treasury. Altogether, these incomes are worth some millions of dollars annually. This enormous wealth, which has benefited the Ashanti royal family exclusively up till now, could be utilized for the greater good of all the citizens of Ashanti. Funding the restoration of the Okomfo Anokye by Manhyia Palace would produce just such a socially beneficial impact. Needless to say, the hospital serves the interest of all the people of Ashanti and some.

But infrastructure renewal would have to be accompanied by the strict enforcement of the professional code of ethics at the hospital. As in many other medical establishments across Ghana, patient abuse is a long-running problem at the Okomfo Anokye, and there is no more egregious example of this unprofessional and potentially criminal conduct than pregnant women in agony being turned away by insensitive nurses for no legitimate reason. Another serious problem at the hospital is corruption, which manifests itself in the most shocking manner imaginable. Just imagine ethically-challenged doctors helping themselves to gifts donated by overseas benefactors and using the stolen goods in their own private practices; or hospital orderlies shamefully “selling” wheelchairs and beds to patients. These individuals engage in such outrageous conduct with no fear of any negative repercussions whatsoever. Obviously, there is a culture of impunity at the Okomfo Anokye, which needs to give way to one of accountability. These horrific ethical and professional issues must be addressed as part of the hospital’s renewal if it ever becomes a reality.

It is our hope that the Otumfuo will heed the call for help for the Okomfo Anokye. Not only would he fulfill a moral obligation to his subjects; he would also justify his “Wise King Solomon” nickname. For only a wise king possesses the intellectual capacity and the courage to identify with the social concerns of his people.