Apple a Day Keeps the Ethiopian Health System Away

Jul 18 , 2021
By Kidist Yidnekachew

Not long ago, a friend’s relative became sick. Her grandson rushed her to a hospital only to be greeted with a staggering request. He was asked to put up 50,000 Br just to have her admitted. It was a Sunday, thus he could not go to a bank. He also did not keep that kind of money at home. Other hospitals he looked into asked for a similar amount of money, some even going as high as 70,000 Br.

He had to call friends for them to lend him the money. Luckily, he found a few that could front it to him, and his grandmother was eventually admitted to the hospital. In the end, after a three day stay in bed, they could not even find what was wrong with her, precisely. But they took all the money. The same is true for private maternity hospitals, where a woman undergoing labour must deposit up to 20,000 Br for delivery services. Based on the expenses and the length of stay in the hospital, the amount could go even higher.

Why not go to a public health centre where it is virtually free?

It is because of the horror stories people sometimes hear about the medical system. There are reports of operations gone wrong or medical errors. I have a relative who got into a car accident a couple of years back. She went to one of the best orthopaedic clinics at the time, but they ended up messing up her arm. Two years ago, she went to the United States and visited a doctor.

“What kind of doctor did that to you?” he asked, and when she told him he was a specialist based in Addis Abeba, he just shook his head.

Many will relate. We are at the mercy of our health professionals. Few other professions have as direct an impact on our lives as they do. No wonder then that the possibility of being diagnosed sends a chill down our spines. The cheaper alternatives, neighbourhood clinics and public health centres, are notorious for ineptitude. Sometimes, the illness is never recognised, and we go home with pills that will not make us sick even more if we are lucky.

“Having surgery in this country is unimaginable, they might even cut the wrong foot or leave spatulas inside,” a friend once said.

It could be a bit of an exaggeration, but neither is it that far off. A few of the rich people in the country prefer to go abroad for major medical operations. Some hospitals are renowned but cost a fortune. As incentives attract talent and skill, this is where the most adept doctors and their sophisticated medical gadgets are found. However, most people in Ethiopia – with a GDP per capita of just over 1,000 dollars – cannot afford to go bankrupt from medical expenses.

It is no wonder then that many people postpone seeing a doctor until a time when they can no longer tolerate it. In the worst of cases, they wait until it is too late. Unlike in more developed countries, only rarely does employment come with medical insurance. While the state also subsidises health, the service in government-run public hospitals and health centres is too poor for there to be much confidence in them.

The best remaining alternative is to take care of ourselves. Many diseases and health complications come from, or are compounded by, lack of exercise, poor diet and substance abuse. By eating more strategically, exercising as routinely as possible, getting a good night’s sleep and reducing consumption of the likes of alcohol, we can reduce the risk of ever having to face the Ethiopian health system.

Owing to our country's levels of economic underdevelopment, the best hope we have is to make lifestyle changes and look out for our physical and mental health. In the meanwhile, we can do worse than put some money away for unexpected, unforeseen medical complications.

PUBLISHED ON Jul 18,2021 [ VOL 22 , NO 1107]

Kidist Yidnekachew is interested in art, human nature and behaviour. She has studied psychology, journalism and communications and can be reached at (

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