MASERU — Three women sit outside a run-down “surgery” in Thibella, a poor working-class suburb notorious for running illegal shebeens, awaiting their turn to get into the “consultation room”.
They are holding grey medical booklets in which the nurses scribble some notes for the patients.
The women are engaged in small talk as they await their turn to get medical attention.
Welcome to ‘Mabatho Clinic, one of the many illegal clinics that have mushroomed in Maseru.
There is nothing at the clinic that would suggest that this is a proper health care centre except a small board just outside the house advertising its services.
The apartment, which houses the surgery, is almost collapsing with signs of neglect all over.
Inside the house is a small dark passage which serves as the reception.
There is no one manning the reception desk when we arrive.
The walls are plastered with posters carrying health messages.
But our eyes are quickly attracted to a hand-written notice showing the prices for the various services on offer.
The “surgery” charges M400 for maternity services while “complicated labour” is charged at M450.
Consultation fee is set at M70.
After waiting for close to five minutes, we are accosted by a woman in her late 20s.
She is dressed in a casual sweater and wrapped in a shawl.
She confirms that they indeed offer all the services advertised on the notice board.
She also tells us that when there is a power cut they resort to candles and gas lamps.
This is nothing strange, she says, as Queen Elizabeth II Hospital, Lesotho’s biggest referral hospital, also suffers power cuts and does not have agenerator to supply electricity during power cuts.
“We use candles and lamps in the event of power cuts while we are working,” the woman says.
Our conversation is however disrupted as more patients walk in.
‘Mabatho Clinic was cited as one of the illegal clinics that the Ministry of Health said it wanted shut down.
“It (the clinic) is not registered. It charges people for vaccinations which are supposed to be given free of charge. They were also found in possession of expired drugs.
“Their surroundings are not healthy. The clinic is a danger to people’s lives,” Tumisang Mokoai, the spokesman for the ministry, says.
The ministry says it has summoned the owner of the clinic, only known as ‘Mabatho, for a disciplinary hearing for operating a clinic without a licence.
She declined to be interviewed saying it would not be wise to speak when her case was still pending at the Ministry of Health.
“I will not say anything now that there is this ongoing hearing. I will however check with my lawyer first to seek advice,” she says.
‘Mabatho is not the only clinic that has raised concern.
The ministry says it wants to launch a crackdown against all unregistered clinics operating in Lesotho.
It says the clinics are posing a grave threat to the health of the people.
But despite the health threats, most people, too poor to seek medical help at private hospitals, continue to visit the illegal clinics.
A man who refused to be identified says this is the only place his family comes to when they fall sick.
“This is the only clinic we use. It may be within the shebeens but they give good services and they listen when you tell them your problem,” he says.
More patients walk in while we are still conducting our investigations at ‘Mabatho clinic.
Others can hardly walk and have to be assisted to get into the “surgery”.
The patient who comes next can hardly walk. He grimaces as two women support him to walk into the “consultation room”.
“He is going to be fine,” says one woman in the queue. “I also had a patient like this and they assisted him.”
The Ministry of Health spokesman says the ministry fears clinics such as ‘Mabatho are putting the health of clients at risk.
“People’s lives are in danger. The worst part is that they are not aware of it. They go to these clinics thinking they are going to get good services.
“Most of the clinics do not meet requirements for a proper clinic. They do not have enough rooms.
“The crucial room in a clinic or hospital is a safe pharmacy where medication should be kept. They do not have them.
“Taking any form of medication from such clinics is dangerous.
“We have also discovered that qualified health practitioners hire unqualified people to run the clinics while they continue to work for other health care centres. This gives us more reason to worry about the safety of the people,” Mokoai says.
Patients who spoke to the Lesotho Times say although the cost of medical treatment was affordable at M15 per visit, they were not happy with the quality of services they received at government hospitals.
It is this perception that private clinics offer better services which is pushing Basotho to shun government hospitals and “endanger” their lives at illegal clinics.