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Wasta: A Matter of Life or Death

October 25, 2007 by  


By Sumayyah Meehan, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)

Almost 2 years ago to this very day, my son almost died. What started out as a simple sore throat turned into a horrible infection. My spouse and I spent more than a week shuttling him back and forth to our local government hospital here in Kuwait. Each time we went there was a different doctor on duty and a different diagnosis. First, they said he required antibiotics to kill the infection. Then, when he did not improve, another doctor took him off the meds and said it was simply a nasal problem. They sent us home with a bottle of nose drops. Finally, we went to the main government hospital in our district thinking we would find better care, but we didn’t. With no other option available, we had no choice but to turn to the private hospital sector. On the morning we planned to take him to the private hospital of our choice, I went into his room to get him ready. I knew something was direly wrong by the way he was holding his head on the pillow. His face was a pale shade of blue and he was burning up with fever. In terror, I began screaming his name and shaking him to wake him up. He was unresponsive. I shook him even harder and he managed to open one of his eyes to the space of a squint. We raced him to the hospital as fast as we could. The first thing the nurse did, before we even saw the doctor, was to hold my son’s entire head under a faucet of cold running water. Even the icy cold water barely roused him. The doctor diagnosed him with severe tonsillitis and admitted him immediately. He stayed there for a full week receiving several bags of IV fluids each day and a cocktail of antibiotics. Test results later revealed that the infection had spread to his bloodstream and was also present in his urine and stool samples. The doctor said that if we had not brought him in when he did the consequences could have proved fatal.

Thankfully, the only casualty in this health crisis was our bank account. The hospital stay cost us about $6000 and our account was officially declared dead. But for us, it was money well spent. I was just thankful to see my son healthy again. However, our joy was short lived when the fever returned 3 days later. We took him back to the same hospital and were told that my son’s tonsils were turning against him. The organs themselves were damaged and full of holes. He needed an emergency tonsillectomy that would cost at least $10,000. There was no way we could afford it. So, we headed back to the government hospital.

Many Americans crave a universal healthcare system in the US, but I have lived with it in Kuwait and it is not at all what it is supposed to be. Almost all the countries in the GCC, who offer universal healthcare, struggle to provide quality care but it’s often hard when hospitals are understaffed and doctors are underpaid. On top of that, getting an appointment for a government hospital is no easy feat. After hearing raves about a government hospital in our area, we went to schedule my son’s tonsillectomy. However, despite his raging fever and ravaged little body we were given an appointment 3 months from the day we added his name to list. Neither my husband nor I believed my son could make it until then. So, we looked for a way to get a faster appointment.

And that way was by finding someone with ‘wasta’, or influence. Basically it means you have friends in high places. Wasta is usually the only way to get things done in the Middle East. Those without it truly struggle to make it in this region. In Kuwait, only the Kuwaiti citizens have wasta. We began looking for someone with wasta and fortunately we found a man who took pity on our situation. This man went to the hospital within 24 hours of us contacting him and our son was on the operating table the following week.

It has been 2 years since my personal experience with wasta being a matter of life or death. So, I was unsure if the same practices were still prevalent in Kuwait today. After talking with a few people, I learned that wasta is still alive and well in Kuwait.

Zainab Saad is a 29-year-old Pakistani mother to 4 girls. She was recently diagnosed with having a polyp in her uterus. The doctor who made the diagnosis ordered an operation to remove the growth and test it to see if it was cancerous. However, Zainab would have to wait 3 months before she could be scheduled for the operation. Since she could not afford to go to a private hospital she had no choice but to look for wasta. Luckily, her husband found a Kuwaiti citizen to help and Zainab was on the operating table in less than 2 weeks and the tests proved she did not have cancer.

On the flip side, Soraya Adil, a Palestinian secretary and mother to two boys, is also struggling with medical issues–however she does not have wasta. Her youngest son has a growth behind his nose. The doctors recommend he have an immediate operation to remove it as it is affecting his breathing and aggravating his tonsils. “My son cries all day and night. I have missed so much work that I fear they will fire me,” she says, “I do not have wasta so I have no choice but to let my child suffer for 3 months until our appointment.”

The 3-month waiting period for surgical operations in Kuwait applies to expatriates only. Kuwaiti citizens, as usual, receive preferential treatment. Even if your life is on the line, without wasta you are forced to gamble with your very existence. As expatriates, we are forced to pay health insurance fees for laughable medical care. The fee is attached to the renewal of residence visas and there is no way to avoid it. Someone in need of a life saving surgery in Kuwait has almost no chance of survival unless a sympathetic doctor manages to pull a few strings. But with their desensitization and disenchantment with their own role in this medical nightmare it’s highly unlikely that they will step up to the plate to save a life that needs saving.

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