Monday, January 9, 2012
Saying no to mediocrity: refusing to accept ‘bicycle ambulances’
A story in the local Malawi media a few weeks back about the donation of 'bicycle ambulances' in Salima district got me thinking about how as a country we have come to accept and embrace mediocrity.
I must confess to being troubled by the increasing frequency of the donation of bicycles to be used as ambulances. In the 21st century, it is both sad and shocking that any people should be using bicycles as ambulances. By definition, ambulances are supposed to provide primary care and quick transport to hospitals to those in need of urgent medical care. They are supposed to have life-saving equipment on board, managed by trained para-medics that provide a first line of medical assistance before one can be transported to be seen by a medical professional.
The idea of a 'bicycle ambulance', on the other hand, reduces the function of an ambulance service to mere transport for patients, albeit one without the requisite speed or comfort. Granted, ambulances in Malawi are very rarely used to provide urgent access to hospitals, with the possible exception of road accident victims.
Indeed, the definition of an ambulance in Malawi appears to be reduced to simply a vehicle that has a thick red cross painted on the sides. There are no phone numbers that people in need of urgent medical care can call to request an ambulance. Like their bicycle cousins, ambulances are simply a means of transport to or from a hospital. Most lack basic life-saving equipment on board. And off course there are no paramedics on board Malawi's ambulances.
More often than not, people only see ambulances in villages when they come to deliver dead bodies – a role that is meant for hearses, not ambulances. Many a time, ambulances are used to carry fee-paying passengers, even when they have patients or dead bodies on board, with the money going into the pockets of the drivers.
For a people that have no reliable access to ambulances or other means of transport to take patients to hospital, perhaps there is something to celebrate in receiving a bicycle ambulance. Indeed, in this day and age when fuel has become such a scarce commodity, perhaps bicycle ambulances are the way to go.
However, I still fail to see anything worth celebrating about the increasing trends of 'bicycle ambulance' donations. Several of Malawi's NGOs seem to have carved a niche in soliciting and handing out these foot-propelled 'ambulances'. If anyone outside Malawi wants to help the country, they should be told in no uncertain terms that Malawians need and deserve real ambulances. Bicycle ambulances do not belong to the 21st century, in Malawi or anywhere for that matter. It is as simple as that. Even an ox-drawn cart can make a better hospital ride than a bicycle in my view.
That we celebrate these donations and make them to be such big events as happened in the Salima episode reflects sadly on our own acceptance of mediocrity. Perhaps this should come as no surprise. It all starts with our acceptance of mediocre leadership, which trickles down to many other areas, including poor quality buildings, poor roads, poor services to mention but a few.