On February 8, the absolute monarch of Swaziland, King Mswati III, addressed the annual opening session of the parliament and advocated “unconventional methods of reducing expenditure” to bring his budget under control. At a time when schools and hospitals across the country are shutting down due to shortage of fund allocation, he announced that the taxes collected “will not be sufficient to offset the arrears accumulated over the years. It will also fail to meet the government’s domestic financial requirements for the fiscal year.”
After spending over USD 40 million on his birthday party last year, in which he sported a wrist-watch worth USD 1.6 million and a suit of dazzling diamonds weighing six kilograms – only days after receiving his second private jet costing USD 30 million – Mswati expressed concern about “public expenditure” earlier this month.
“Hard decisions will have to be taken, sacrifices will have to be made,” said the King, who has a known net worth of USD 200 million, 13 palaces and fleets of some of the most expensive Mercedes and BMW cars, apart from two private jets.
Reigning in out-of-control expenditure and maintaining a “fully-financed budget”, Mswati said, “will require very stiff measures and concentrated effort to curtail expenditure.”
The King has announced further curtailment of the public expenditure on country’s education and healthcare system. A week prior to his address, the WHO conducted an assessment of the country’s healthcare system from January 28 to February 1, and reported “rising maternal mortality ratio from 320 per 100,000 live births in 2010 to 389 per 100,000 live births in 2016 as well as declining national immunization coverage from 83% in 2014 to 73% in 2016.”
In 2017-18, the budget allocated to the already fund-starved ministry of health saw a further 15.7% decline in real terms. The UNICEF estimated the requirement of at least 2.5 million euros ( USD 2.83 million) “to ensure an equitable minimum package of healthcare services for all Swazis”. The (real) allocation of 1.63 million euros (USD 1.84 million) fell 35% short.
By mid-last year, the under-funding had left the country with only 12 functional ambulances to cater to a population of 1.2 million as no new ambulances were bought since 2013. The health ministry was unable to pay for its purchases from Swazipharm, the country’s largest distributor of pharmaceutical products and medical instruments. As a result, the company could not buy new stocks, and had to cease supplying medicines to health centers. Further, the fact that access to healthcare is disproportionately higher in urban areas implies that in rural Swaziland, where 76% of the country’s population resides, healthcare crisis is even worse than the national average.
Last September, scores of children got affected by diarrhea due to lack of immunization, at least six of whom died. Reportedly, the same month, the government hospital in the capital city of Mbabane ran out of food, which forced patients to rely on their family and relatives for food. More deaths were reported in December when the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit (ICU) was on the verge of shutting down because the equipments needed maintenance.
On February 6, the government hospital in the southern town of Hlathikhulu also ran of out food, leaving the nurses with nothing but thin porridge to feed the patients one time a day. The supplies to continue this meager diet was also running out.
The condition of nurses has also worsened due to under-funding. Shortage of safety equipment, such as gloves and masks, has been making nurses increasingly vulnerable to diseases.
Further, due to no hike in wages over the last two years during which prices have soared, the nurses, represented by Swaziland Nurses Association (SNA), have repeatedly engaged in protest action. An average 14% loss of real wage over the last two years has affected not only nurses but also other civil servants, including teachers, who have been mobilized into organized action by Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT).
Such actions are often met with violence by the security forces who are unleashed on the protesters. When the unions, representing a variety of professions in public sectors, organized a country-wide strike last month, the government moved the Industrial Court to stop the strike action.
However, the unions are holding discussions to plan the way forward, and the King’s announcement about a further fund cut to essential services, which cater to a country where about 70% of the population lives on less than USD 2 per day, is bound to provoke more labor unrest.