The secrecy round presidents’ deaths perpetuates stigmas and misses an enormous alternative for public well being promotion.
The loss of life of former president Jerry John Rawlings on 12 November 2020 incurred a double loss for Ghana. First, the nation misplaced its longest serving president. Second, it misplaced an enormous alternative for a public well being promotion.
Regardless of huge consideration on the late president’s loss of life, the Ghanaian individuals had heard hardly any information of his sickness or temporary hospitalisation beforehand. His passing got here as a shock and we nonetheless know little or no of what killed him.
President Nana Akufo-Addo merely said the 73-year-old had “joined his ancestors… after a brief sickness”. Some media shops – together with Joy News, GhanaWeb and BBC – reported that Rawlings had contracted COVID-19. Others, such because the late president’s former spokesperson, refuted this and said he believed the reason for loss of life was malaria.
This meant that Rawlings’ loss of life was shrouded in the identical sorts of hypothesis which have characterised different high-profile deaths on the continent this previous 12 months. When President Pierre Nkurunziza died abruptly in June 2020, as an illustration, the federal government in Burundi denied he had contracted COVID-19 however didn’t shed far more mild on his supposed situation. Only a week earlier than President John Magufuli died this March, the federal government in Tanzania was insisting he was “wholesome and dealing exhausting”. When he handed, authorities once more denied the reason for loss of life was COVID-19 and pointed to obscure coronary heart points.
Going additional again, there are lots of extra situations of African presidents dying abruptly and with little official clarification. This listing contains Togo’s Gnassingbé Eyadema, Guinea’s Lasana Conté, Algeria’s Abdulaziz Bouteflika, Zambia’s Levy Mwanawasa, Nigeria’s Umaru Yar’Adua, Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, Malawi’s Bingu wa Mutharika and Ghana’s John Evans Atta Mills. The phenomenon additionally extends properly past Africa.
Presidents will not be constitutionally required to report on their well being, however the secretive nature of all these deaths robbed international locations of well timed alternatives for reflection and frank discussions of well being and sickness.
A helpful counter instance is Ronald Reagan’s battle with colon most cancers within the 1985. In that occasion, the US president’s prognosis and remedy had been formally disclosed intimately to the American individuals, producing widespread media protection and dispassionate public discussions. Researchers later discovered that this episode birthed a public discourse on dietary habits and a rise in consciousness across the significance of well being monitoring. The 12 months after Reagan’s public well being issues, the incidence of superior colon most cancers circumstances declined considerably, probably as a consequence of elevated early detection.
18 years of researching the lived experiences of individuals dwelling with HIV/AIDS, cancer and recently, COVID-19, has proven us the excessive predominance of illness-related stigmatisation and discrimination in Africa. Guilt and disgrace is extra widespread when circumstances are infectious, terminal or are deemed to have some ethical or religious connotations. In such circumstances, sufferers usually report back to well being amenities solely when their signs are too superior for significant intervention. This results in poorer remedy outcomes, increased care burdens and better mortality charges, which additional perpetuates fears and contributes to a normal lack of awareness about many sicknesses. The ensuing stigma can develop into so entrenched that it tarnishes the picture of the deceased and their household.
This impacts presidents too and is a part of why leaders’ deaths are continuously attributed to nothing greater than “a brief sickness”. Secrecy permits figures to keep away from the stigma related to illness and keep their picture as heroic and invincible. Sadly, it additionally reinforces a tradition of hiding sicknesses and perpetuating the stigma, guilt, disdain, and disgrace usually related to poor well being.
At a vigil for her father, Rawlings’s daughter eulogised: “I recognised and accepted a very long time in the past that he wasn’t simply my father, however the father of many, and now we have at all times shared him.” Certainly, for about 20 years, J.J. Rawlings was the daddy of Ghanaians, overseeing insurance policies and programmes that affected the lives of individuals intimately. Wouldn’t it have been inappropriate then for his youngsters to know what killed their father? Because the Ga say, mo ko sane e, moko sane (“one man’s troubles concern one other man”).
A rustic’s residents need not learn about all their chief’s delicate maladies, however when their circumstances trigger loss of life, they should be named. This might not solely assist fight the stigma related to sickness in lots of locations however would offer a useful alternative for individuals to debate and study from the tragic occasion.
Dr Deborah Atobrah is a Senior Analysis Fellow on the Institute of African Research, College of Ghana. Dr Benjamin Kwansa is a Analysis Fellow on the Institute of African Research, College of Ghana.