Exploiting the sick for money

Daily, they stream unto the streets. They used to come in different forms – physically handicapped persons begging for alms, able-bodied persons (adults and children) soliciting transport fare, others begging outright for money with which to feed, young boys cleaning your car’s windshield expecting some tips for their unsolicited service.

The most nauseating and latest trend is the way some unscrupulous people exploit cancer patients who are paraded on major streets, baring their grotesque jaws at passersby and motorists. These helpless people who should be on hospital beds are dragged about exposing cancerous dentures in such an offensive manner that the moment I spot their fund solicitors in their unmistakable white overalls; I quickly look in the opposite direction because I can’t stand the horrible sights.

These victims have become unwilling pawns in the hands of their exploiters. The modus operandi of these fraudsters is to send out young men and women in groups of between six and ten. When they get to the location for the day, they fan out among the long queue of early morning traffic either moving their victim/client/accomplice (any of these is correct) on wheelchairs, and where they can walk, pilot such a person through the heavy traffic.

The fund solicitors are usually dressed in white, with green or brown trimmings on the collar. One of them holds a public address system, (the type usually favoured by early morning street evangelists) singing choruses in a loud voice and drawing attention to the “patient,” while others meander through the traffic shoving laminated pictures of the “patient” in the faces of commuters and other passersby. Maintaining the rear is the patient who is supported by one of the uniformed fund solicitors.

I have often wondered where these people get their “patients” from. Is it from hospital beds, a home specially set up to cater to the medical needs of these people? Obviously, it cannot be from the former, for hospitals, government owned (despite obvious lapses) and reputable private ones have a code of ethics by which they operate. On closer examination of the laminated pictures however, one could decipher that this kind of soliciting emanate from mushroom healing centres run by a greedy syndicate ready to make money from the plight of these very ill people. The document/photograph does not bear the name of any corporate body neither does it bear the address of any organisation purportedly sending these people out on their “fraudulent” mission; rather, one would discover that the pictures were poorly printed photocopies of a poorly produced photograph.

My suspicions of these groups were further fuelled a few days ago, when I suddenly stumbled on one of the regular “patients” of this syndicate, begging for alms on his own, without the trappings that accompanied him the previous day; and I wondered – could he have fallen out with the group, or was he just being adventurous – stepping out alone like that?

According to a newspaper report, findings show that the guardians of the sick people sometimes enter into a partnership with the care assistants with the understanding that any money made in the process would be shared between them. Unfortunately, the sick people, on whose behalf money is being solicited, are usually ripped off, with little or none of the money getting to them and with no hope of medical treatment in view. Perhaps the man mentioned above discovered this the hard way and decided to go it alone? Perhaps.

So, what is being done to stop this wicked trend?  A child rights activist, with the Child Protection Network in Lagos, Mr. Ebenezer Omejalile, who is worried about the trend of using sick babies to beg, said that most of the women engaged in this act were not the real mothers of the babies. “We tried to empower some of them vocationally but they rejected. They appear content with begging,” he said. Apart from this, the culprits are difficult to pin down as they move from one location to the other.  Said Omejalile “We have tried to arrest some of them in the past, but before we got there, they would have left. We are working with the government now to arrest these women because they are definitely not the mothers of the babies.”

The syndicate is hard to break for many reasons, the most important being the harsh economic realities and the fact that these victims find it difficult to feed not to talk of raising the huge amount required for their specialised treatment or surgery.

Arresting the heartless exploiters is only a part of the solution, re-orientating and educating the victims alongside proper rehabilitation is another area that should be explored. However, I seem to understand the dilemma of the victims – previous well-meaning efforts by government have been sabotaged by greedy officials who would rather divert for their own personal use, the funds provided for rehabilitation of these people. Despite this though, I think child rights and other human rights activists, in conjunction with government, should not rest until they get these people off the roads.