Health Policy and Politics: BBC Three Counties Radio Interview

Fantastic, mature and confident interview with good use of evidence-base“, Gurch Rhandawa (Professor of Diversity in Public Health, University of Bedfordshire)

In the production studio…

After offering me a seat, Weegan  treats me to a cup of cold water and a brief, welcoming smile. She’s five-foot tall, brown-eyed, and Caucasian. She had called me earlier to schedule my appointment for 8:15 pm. The BBC Three Counties Radio studio is much like that of Diamond FM, the community radio of the University of Ibadan (where I was interviewed as a role model and leader back in 2011 in the final year of my first degree -in pharmacy): a roomy production room with a large table at the centre on which are all kinds of blinking gadgets, some like 1950s black-and-white TV, some like the DJ’s sound mixer. There is a huge, ugly network of wires all over the floor behind the large table: some hanging on the wall. Electrical impulses sprint through the cable network and come out as blasting decibels in the feedback speaker that sits at the angle formed by the right wall and the one directly facing Weegan and Ray: her male colleague who had given me a very firm, masculine handshake the moment I came in.

My seat has its back on the right wall. I turn around to see my host through the transparent glass partition in the wall. Weegan, with her headphone on, communicates with Nesta McGregor, the presenter and my host, by nodding and shaking her head or waving her hands sometimes. Occasionally, she speaks through a microphone mounted before her as if it leans forward to kiss her lips. Ray has his own microphone too. But all they say or do in the production room does not go on air: listeners at home will never know except those wires and blinking gadgets conspire to embarrass the crew on duty.

Preparing to go live!

“It’s now half past 8. Nesta McGregor is my name and you’re listening to BBC Three Counties Radio …and I have my guest right here in the studio”, Nesta speaks with a typical studio accent to introduce the next segment of the show where he’ll be chatting with a young man who had travelled over 4700 Kilometres (2942.6 Miles) from South-western Nigeria to study MSc. in Public Health  at the University of Bedfordshire. He then plays some music. “A Commonwealth Scholarship is available for international students to study at the University of Bedfordshire so they can learn skills to take back to their home country. Opeyemi Ezekiel Akindele (I pardon him for the pronunciation) from Nigeria is studying for an MA (sic) in Public Health, thanks to the Commonwealth Scholarship Scheme”, he builds a concise background to our conversation for our audience all over the UK and the rest of the world to understand. I imagine my mentor and professor, Gurch Rhandawa, sit by his radio with a glass of white wine, taking a sip every other minute; and Elizabeth Bailey, Coordinator of Luton Council’s Cancer Awareness Team, sit across her table with a cup o’ tea, listening to my interview. Then I recall how my father, now late, spoke in the background when my older brother Joseph, phoned in to make comments during my first radio interview on Diamond FM in 2011.

with my host Nesta McGregor
with my host Nesta McGregor

World Cup fever: Nigeria vs Argentina…

True to the season, Nesta opens our conversation with the FIFA 2014 World Cup ongoing in the tropical South American country, Brazil. It’s been a World Cup of the underdogs: underrated nations have shocked the world; and favourite countries like Spain, England and Italy have been disgraced. Spain and England lost their first two games to seal their exit at the group stage: disgraceful because Spain is the defending champion and England has not lost two World Cup matches in a row since 1958! Costa Rica, enveloped the entire world in a tight bag of surprise when they decisively defeated Italy by a lone goal, whereas the latter had beaten England 2-1 in their first group match. “Do you imagine Argentina’s Lionel Messi stopping you from progressing in the World Cup: will you lose or draw?”, Nesta asks. “Well, we’re happy to defeat Bosnia in our second game, having had a goalless draw with Iran in our first match. I believe we might just win Argentina if we’re not playing a draw”. Nesta then remarks I was clever with my answer.

Coming to the UK via Commonwealth Scholarship Scheme…

“What made you want to take part in the Commonwealth Scholarship Scheme and come over to Luton to study public health?”. I respond with my Nigerian accent: for me, three reasons underpin my decision to pursue a postgraduate degree in the United Kingdom. One is global intelligence and multicultural competence. Global intelligence in the sense that when you come to the UK, the postgraduate experience is rich. And the UK is the most multicultural country in the whole world. So, coming here, for me, is like coming, you know, to the entire world. You know (“you know” is my filler or crutch, too bad that I often repeat it while speaking 🙂 ), you’ll meet people from India, Pakistan, America, Ghana, Canada, Nepal… And again career progression these days does not rely solely on technical brilliance but also on one’s ability to relate with people of different sociocultural or religious background. Secondly, in pharmaceutical parlance, coming to study in the UK is a rate-determining step for my career as a pharmacist and a public health professional. “Is studying in the UK seen as a badge of honour then?”, Nesta cuts in. Yes, yes really it is, because you’ll get contacts, you’ll see how things are run. And the third reason  has to do with  funding. You know (again!),  the United Kingdom has massive funding opportunities and I was fortunate to be awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship. The pathway through which I came is funded by the UK government (through the Department for International Development -DFID) and my host school, the University of Bedfordshire. And I tell you, it’s extremely competitive: you’ve got to have a first class; you’ve got to be able to convince your professor (referring to Professor Gurch and other chief assessors of scholarship applications) that you’re prepared to take on a postgraduate training and that you’ll be of benefit to the scheme and your host country.

On the state of education in Nigeria…

Nesta poses the next question: “So, then what’s the fundamental difference between the schooling you received in  Nigeria and over here?” After pausing for three seconds, I continue: well, I will begin by telling you what it’s not. The difference is not about the brilliance of the personnel. I mean, several of my own lecturers have won international awards. So, the basic difference between education in Nigeria and in the UK is in the experience, how rich it is. It’s in terms of facilities. And we do have strike actions by lecturers and non-academic staff such that my pharmacy degree took over six years instead of the normal 5 years or 10 semesters.

On healthcare and the politics of health…

Our health system shares similarities with other developing economies like Pakistan, Ghana and others in terms of progress and challenges. I’ll begin with the positive aspect: with respect to the Millennium Development Goals, I think we have come a long way. Compared to the 1990 level when infant mortality rate (IMR) exceeded 180 deaths/thousand, we have been able to bring that down to about 120 deaths/thousand at national level. And if we disaggregate that data, we’ll see that South-western Nigeria where I came from has met the MDG, but there are other parts of the country where IMR is nearly as twice as what we have in the south. Also, we’ve been able to launch Universal Health Coverage recently to bring those who are not civil servants such as traders and artisans into the National Health Insurance Scheme as part of Mr President’s Transformation Agenda. So, I believe that will go a long way in improving the health of our population.

Now, in terms of the challenges, we have people who are capable but the health system is weak -you know (again!), system has to do with how we function as a whole… Nesta interrupts, “The system is not making use of the best people”. Exactly! Corruption, attitudinal problems and frequent strike actions by health workers have not been taken care of.

Also, the average Nigerian does not trust the public health system. (I remember the horrible situation of toilets (exposed by Channels TV reporter) in Lagos University Teaching Hospital and how the awkward Chief Medical Director was passing the buck to the “Federal Government”, but I consider alluding to that on a BBC Radio too embarrassing for Africa’s largest economy 🙂 ) Instead I quickly draw a sharp contrast between two politicians: Bala Ngilari, embattled Adamawa Deputy Governor who recently flew to Dubai for a “medical check up” (only to hurry back to Nigeria when he caught wind of his impeachment) and Kelvin Hopkins, a British MP who does health checks in the same health facility used by members of his constituency in Luton North.

Embarking on medical tourism even for conditions or services that we have skilled health professionals to take care of is a sign that politicians themselves know they are not making personal and adequate investment in health; and that sends a bad signal to the public that what is on ground is not good enough. It is not hard to see why, generally speaking, Nigerians do not trust the health system and would only seek medical attention at an advanced stage of their disease condition when things are getting out of hand. Even Onyebuchi Chukwu, our health minister who sits on  multimillion dollars foreign aids for health and all health facilities in Nigeria, has been alleged to travel abroad for basic health services.

Political and healthcare leadership should ensure that the quality of healthcare they themselves can use is what is made available to the public. Otherwise even they will be victims someday, because there are emergencies that would need such a timely intervention that they would have died before getting to “Dubai”. Is the blood or body of a governor not same as that of the ordinary citizen?

Also, there are developmental issues and poverty affecting health. Studying health has broadened my horizon to understand health from a wider perspective, that is the social determinants of health. We cannot separate development from health. Imagine a situation where people who barely eat once in a day are taking mediations to manage hypertension or say, diabetes; it’s not going to work, their condition would rather deteriorate. And we have regulatory issues where for instance, people who are not pharmacists are “selling” antibiotic, anti-hypertensives indiscriminately, and the government has not been able to stop that.

with Kelvin Hopkins, British MP, Luton North
with Kelvin Hopkins, British MP, Luton North

Rounding off…

“Well I think you should rather be a politician instead of being a doctor (sic) to make these changes”, Nesta wonders. Well, I’m a pharmacist (laughs) and as a public health student, we’re told that public health is the politics of health. So everything (practice and politics) goes hand in hand. I’m building my political career little by little; we’ll get there.

Nesta concludes: “Thank you very much, ehmmm we’ve run out of time Opeyemi. Thank you, I hope you’ll get back to Nigeria and make those changes you envisage making. Ehmmm Opeyemi Akindele, from Nigeria is studying MA (sic) in Public Health at the University of Bedfordshire on Commonwealth Scholarship. Don’t go away, it’s quarter to 9 o’clock.  I’ll be right back! For now, enjoy this music by Bob Marley…”



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