Nigeria would have lost at least 500 million dollars to medical tourism this year but for restrictions on foreign travels due to COVID-19, a lawmaker has said.
Tanko Sununu, the Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Health Services, said thousands of Nigerians could not jet out of the country in search of medical care due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Mr Sununu, a laparoscopic surgeon, said this on Tuesday while making a presentation at a roundtable on health security policy and finance.
The event was organised by the Legislative Initiative for Sustainable Development (LISDEL) in Abuja.
It is estimated that Nigeria loses about one billion dollars annually on medical tourism as almost 500 Nigerians go abroad monthly to seek medical intervention.
But with flights grounded and countries across the world on lockdown in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, many Nigerians, including the political elite, were forced to use the Nigerian hospitals.
For almost six months, Nigeria skies were shut against international flights after President Muhammdu Buhari placed a ban on foreign travels in March as the struggle to contain the spread of the deadly virus intensified.
The ban was lifted only a few days ago and the first international flight landed at the Murtala Mohammed Airport in Lagos on Saturday.
Even before COVID-19, many of Nigeria’s key health interventions — including on polio eradication, vaccination programmes, malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and maternal and child health — remain almost entirely dependent on foreign donors, with the government committing less than $10 per citizen to health under its current budget.
But as a result of the economic downturn caused by weeks of lockdown, many of those donor funds are no longer coming as every country faces its own COVID-19 nightmare.
“When you look at the six months’ period that the ban was in place, about 500 million dollars that would have been lost to medical tourism was saved because nobody is traveling out for medical care,” the lawmaker said.
In an interview with PREMIUM TIMES shortly after the event, Mr Sununu said the $500 million he spoke about would have been converted to gains for the country if there was a vibrant health system and health security in place.
“Most Nigerians seeking care abroad go to India where there are advanced facilities and spend millions in foreign currency. Now, if we have such facilities and technologies for heart and kidney transplant as well as other major surgeries, the excess money that is going out will be retained within the country,” the lawmaker explained.
“We can divert that excess money to make sure we have a vibrant Primary Health Care service delivery system.”
Turning Losses to Gain
Gafar Alawode, a public health practitioner and the anchor of the event, said the COVID-19 situation has shown that Nigeria must stop depending on other countries for the healthcare needs of its citizens.
“We can turn losses from medical tourism to gain when we look at our policy framework by looking at health as a social service,” Mr Alawode explained.
“We have to venture into technology if we want to do health delivery that will fetch us money. We have to invest on specialisations and expertise as well as develop the capacity of private hospitals that will be paying taxes to government.
“If our health system is well developed, we will have a vibrant market because most of the smaller African countries will like to come to Nigeria than going to India: Its less costly; culture is the same, food and weather etc.”
The health expert said Nigeria can convert money lost to medical tourism by seen health as an investment that could transition into a major source of foreign revenue.
“It is critical we strategise on how we invest in health care. We need to have a robust policy backed with a huge financial commitment.
“We also need to tackle brain drain because most of these hospitals Nigerians rush to abroad are manned by fellow Nigerians. We need to collaborate and partner with countries that have more expertise and advanced technology-driven health systems.
“We will not be only will be targeting the Nigerian health market. There are a lot of western African countries that will be coming to the country to seek care if we have a vibrant health system and this will be a source of foreign exchange.”