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Equatorial Guinea struggles with drugs shortage as pandemic strikes

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President Teodoro Obiang Nguema has ruled Equatorial Guinea for 42 years. ludovic MARIN POOL/AFP/File

Santos Bimbile is worried. He has been to four pharmacies in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea, and not one of them has the drug that his sister-in-law needs to ease stomach pain.

“It’s very difficult to get your hands on certain drugs, and especially for an affordable price,” he says.

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Bimbile’s problem is familiar to many of the 1.4 million citizens of this country — a tiny state in central western Africa known for its oil wealth, widespread poverty and iron-fisted regime.

In medical terms, the country is suffering from a perfect storm, in which years-long shortages of drugs have combined with the coronavirus pandemic.

“We have received almost nothing for the past three years,” Francisco Ondo Nsue, director of Centramed, a government agency that supplies Equatorial Guinea’s hospitals and pharmacies, said in early July.

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Fatima Nsang is standing outside the Los Angeles pharmacy, one of the best-known in Malabo, with her six-month-old baby in her hands. He is struggling to breathe.

“I’m looking for drugs — they prescribed seven to me at the hospital but I can only find two of them,” she said.

Ocheku, a Nigerian man aged 40, came out of the store empty-handed, even though he was only hoping to buy painkillers. Esther Ada was unable to find a medication for her diabetes. 

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“We lack many drugs here,” said a sales assistant at a hospital in Malabo.

The health ministry has an annual drugs budget of around two million CFA francs ($3.6 million / three million euros) but “only three percent is spent,” said Ondo Nsue.

The meagre sum allocated for drugs is also under pressure to help meet other needs, including the Covid pandemic.

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The situation could soon worsen if the ministry fails to buy drugs quickly, Ondo Nsue said.

The health ministry and other branches of the government did not respond to an AFP solicitation.

– Money management -Equatorial Guinea has been ruled for more than 42 years by Teodoro Obiang Nguema.

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The 79-year-old is the world’s longest-serving sitting president and is frequently accused by rights groups of abuses.

In 1979, he ousted his uncle Francisco Macias Nguema, who had ruled the country since independence from Spain in 1968, and had him shot by firing squad.

The discovery of oil in 1991 caused the country’s coffers to explode, but most of the wealth was spent on big infrastructure projects rather than health and education, say watchdogs.

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In 2019, life expectancy was just 59 years, according to the World Bank.

Government revenue is 90-percent dependent on oil and has slumped since the price of crude tumbled in 2014.

“Despite being considered an upper middle-income country, Equatorial Guinea’s healthcare system continues to suffer from many of the ailments that typically afflict healthcare systems in low-income countries: inadequate staffing, long waiting times, stock-outs of basic medications and medical supplies, and frequent misdiagnoses,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a 2017 report.

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Rampant price rises and the worrying emergence of counterfeit drugs are signs of how profiteers are meeting the needs of sick people.

“Frenadol (an anti-flu drug) now costs 10,000 CFA francs compared with 4,000 francs a few months ago,” said Ela Anguesomo, leaving a pharmacy.

A customs official at Malabo airport, speaking of condition of anonymity, said, “We have made several seizures from Cameroon and Nigeria of medications that are probably fake.”

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