You’ve been in an accident in Malawi – where do you go? If you said the emergency department you could be wrong.
A few months ago my editor at Blantyre Newspapers Limited’s Sunday Times made this “mistake”, taking a small boy who had been in a traffic accident to Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH) for emergency treatment. The boy, playing with a friend alongside of the highway, had run head-on into an oncoming SUV. He was severely bruised, crying, and required treatment, but when they reached the hospital the staff at the registration desk turned the boy away on the basis of a policy that requires a police report before care can be administered to an accident victim.
Nurses and doctors affirmed the police report policy to the boy and the editor and it was only after they drove to the police station and were escorted by an officer back to the emergency department that the boy received treatment for the traumatic experience he had endured – nearly two hours after initially arriving to the ward.
Three weeks ago, that same editor witnessed a similar episode when a transport truck struck a small car. At least one passenger was killed on impact, and when another bloodied passenger was brought to the hospital in hope of emergency treatment he was forced to wait in agonizing pain until a police report could be acquired.
When questioned on the policy, chief administrator of QECH Themba Mhango said a victim of a traffic collision would “definitely” be treated right away because “it is a human rights issue.”
“Now with the multi-party system, human rights came in and people started realizing their human rights. You can’t do that to a person now – say ‘no I won’t give you treatment,’” Mhango said.
However, a subsequent visit to the hospital’s emergency room registration desk involved no mention of human rights.
In contradiction to Mhangos’s comments, a desk attendant said that while critical injuries are treated as soon as possible, “when an accident victim arrives a police report is required.”
While “there are serious cases in which you can’t do otherwise but treat the victim,” the attendant matter-of-factly said the majority of individuals who seek treatment following a collision have suffered “minor injuries” and therefore require a police report.
Southern Region Police Public Relations Officer Nicholas Gondwa also confirmed the hospital procedure of requiring a police report prior to treating injuries sustained in an accident and said the policy exists as a kind of collateral, because “hospitals fear that the person may not be an accident victim but rather a criminal who got injured while committing acts of crime.”
“It cannot be known whether the person was really involved in an accident or was injured while committing acts of crime,” he said.
The point is moot. Under Article 16 of the African [Banjul] Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Malawi ratified in 1989, “Every individual shall have the right to enjoy the best attainable state of physical and mental health” and, “States parties… 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 African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights contain similar clauses.
Because Malawi uses a socialized system of health care, “with the goal of providing access and basic health services to all Malawians” and to “raise the level of health status of all Malawians by reducing the incidence of illness and occurrence of death in the population,” it is the responsibility of the Ministry of Health to address this unjust policy – take necessary measures to protect the well-being of their people.
Considering the fact that it is already difficult to get necessary health care in Malawi – transportation to clinics and health centers is problematic, and when a person is able to reach a health centre or hospital it is not uncommon to find that there is no medicine – added delays to accessing appropriate care such as this hospital procedure of requiring a police report are undue, unjust and inhumane, and contradict the state of emergency for which the health department in question exists.
In the meantime, Malawians should be advised to keep a first aid kit on hand as well as a police officers’ phone number on speed dial – you will need both before you can access appropriate treatment for injuries sustained in an accident at Queen’s hospital.
With files from the Sunday Times’ Ruth Mputeni