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It’s critical that medical Afrophobia be eradicated

Many South Africans have expressed concern about the burden that foreign nationals may place on the country’s healthcare system

AFROPHOBIA has become deeply institutionalised in post-apartheid South Africa as hostility towards migrants and refugees persists, particularly in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

About two million immigrants live in South Africa, many of whom have difficulty accessing public services like healthcare. Medical Afrophobia in the context of South Africa refers to the fear or hatred of people from other African countries who seek medical treatment or services in South Africa.

This phenomenon is often fuelled by prejudice and misinformation and has led to discrimination, violence and other forms of mistreatment against foreign nationals seeking medical care.

Many South Africans have expressed concern about the burden that foreign nationals may place on the country’s healthcare system, and there have been instances of violence and harassment against African foreign nationals seeking medical care.

Sadly, African foreign nationals have been constantly made scapegoats for the public health system crisis caused by government failure. Such blame game is meant to divert attention from severe challenges facing government.

In addition, our society needs to understand that healthcare is a basic human right, and every individual deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their cultural or national background. Discrimination in healthcare is a breeding ground for medical Afrophobia and undermines the principles of healthcare.

It is misplaced to ask whether or not migrants put undue strain on the healthcare system. The reality is that South Africa’s health system has been plagued by problems and it functions poorly as a result of poor governance. There are general shortages of nurses and doctors, high workloads, and low morale among staff.

Additionally, there has been massive government corruption, mismanagement, State capture and apathy over many years and these also play a role. People move into and across South Africa, which is a reality that needs to be planned for.

Groups like Operation Dudula have pushed an anti-immigrant sentiment, which is closely linked to the country’s dire economic situation, partly caused by increased poverty, scarcity of resources and high unemployment.

In September 2022, hostility against foreign nationals was exhibited by members of Operation Dudula outside Kalafong Provincial Tertiary Hospital in Pretoria. One of the most recent incidents was in January 2023 when members of Operation Dudula chased away African migrants from the Jeppe Clinic in central Johannesburg.

Consequently, the Collective Voices, a collective of 30 organisations, released a statement condemning Operation Dudula’s attack on patients at Jeppe Clinic in Johannesburg that not only jeopardised individual health, but also public health.

There is rising fear amid the intensification of public remarks advocating health Afrophobia that has been met with little denunciation or government action.

For instance, Limpopo Health MEC Phophi Ramathuba in 2022 openly castigated a migrant patient for “killing the healthcare system”, and then Health minister and now Home Affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi asserted in 2018 that when foreign nationals get admitted in large numbers, “they cause overcrowding, infection control starts failing”.

However, New24 reported that audit reports and formal statistics revealed “no indications of any significant adverse impact of foreign nationals on the healthcare system in the province (Limpopo), but enough evidence of poor management and weak financial controls contributing to a system in distress”.

Doctors Without Borders has also stated that resentment towards migrants in health services has been driven by inflammatory and political statements from government officials, including the Limpopo Health MEC.

These examples reveal the hostile attitudes towards migrants of public healthcare of State officials who have the most face-to-face contact with African migrants and refugees.

Medical xenophobia can take many forms, including language barriers, cultural misunderstandings, and discriminatory practices by healthcare providers. It can also result from a lack of cultural competence or sensitivity training for healthcare providers, leading to biased attitudes and actions towards patients from different backgrounds.

Some healthcare staff tend to be guards who have tasked themselves to hinder migrants’ access to healthcare services. On the other hand, many are not averse to enriching themselves at the expense of vulnerable migrants and refugees.

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