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Rising sudden death cases among newly arrived diasporans – medical expert speaks

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By Own Correspondent


MICHAEL Mawema had barely been in the United Kingdom (UK) for two months when he died suddenly in December last year, explained a GoFundMe appeal launched to raise funds for repatriation of his body to Zimbabwe so that his “kids can see their father for the last time”.

Earlier that same month, accountant Henry Chikwena also died in Jersey, that tragedy coming just a few months after he had relocated to the Channel Islands territory with his family from Bulawayo.

And back in August, mum of two Angela Nyamajiwa died shortly after moving to Thailand, having barely settled in the Southeast Asian country.

“As we grapple with this unimaginable loss, we come together to honour Angela’s memory and make sure she finds (her) way back home to Zimbabwe, where they belong,” wrote Simon Moyana who launched a GoFundMe appeal to help with body repatriation costs.

These were just three of several sudden death cases in the second half of 2023 which involved people that had only just relocated to the diaspora.

This begs the question; what could be the reason for the sudden deaths just as people have moved to the diaspora?

Medical expert, Dr Brighton Chireka, said there are several challenges associated with migrating to new and unfamiliar environments.

“Basically, what is happening is that people may come here with underlying health problems,” said Dr Chireka who is based in the UK.

“You’re coming to a new and unfamiliar environment; you get stressed with challenges related to the food, the weather and then people also neglect to go and see the doctor and then they end up running out of their medication.

“They run out of their medications, but they still do not go and see a doctor because they are still feeling fine.

Underlying health conditions

Dr Chireka added; “However, there are underlying conditions one should not neglect such as your blood pressure, your diabetes, HIV. These three conditions cannot be cured, but they can be managed with medication.

“So, the message to everyone is that, for you to remain with your viral load suppressed, you must take your medication; the same applies for your diabetes, for your blood pressure.”

Many of the diaspora bereavements are also resorting to GoFundMe appeals as families try to raise funds to repatriate their loved ones back home for burial.

Jeff Madzingo, CEO of Diaspora Insurance which provides bespoke risk solutions for African diaspora communities worldwide, said migrants also need take cash-based insurance policies because it gives them worldwide protection whether one choses to be buried abroad, repatriation or even cremation.

“It is indeed very sad that people migrate off-shore in search of a better life and greener pastures but end up meeting their fate so early in their relocation,” he said.

“So, the critical point, really, is how the community supports each other and works on different options that make sure that we are delivered as a community and, as Diaspora Insurance, we appreciate the challenges that the communities are facing, and we are always looking to provide a solution and be very responsive.”

Unlike the traditional goods and service funeral policies which come rigid and short in terms of worldwide cover needs for diasporans, Diaspora Insurance, came up with a bespoke intervention solutions that are tailor-made for transnational communities.

The company, now serving 13 African diaspora communities worldwide, offers a guaranteed acceptance, no-medicals required funeral cash policy whereby one can insure themselves for up to £20,000 and also add family members back home in Africa.

Meanwhile, Dr Chireka warned that chronic stress was a contributory factor in terms of people with underlying health conditions developing complications.

Exploitation of migrant healthcare workers has been widely reported in the UK. A recent report by anti-slavery charity, Unseen, said that there was a 606% increase in care work-related modern slavery cases reported to its helpline in 2022.

The report revealed various methods of abuse used by some employers in the care sector to keep individuals in modern slavery situations. The most common method was financial control, including withholding wages, non-compliance with National Minimum Wage, large deductions from salaries, debt bondage and excessive fees for breaking contract.

Migrant workers exploitation

Dr Brighton Chireka

Some employers also withheld victims’ passports and threatened to revoke certificates of sponsorship or have them deported.

Dr Chireka said migrants experiencing these problems were at risk of chronic stress which “is a health hazard because chronic stress leads to chronic inflammation and then it increases your chances of getting diabetes, high blood pressure and strokes.

“So, now imagine you already have diabetes which means stress is going to make your diabetes worse and then you can have complications such as heart attack, stroke, kidney problems, eye problems, feet problems and these are all complications of diabetes,” he said.

“High blood pressure complications may include heart failure or stroke. So, with most of these sudden deaths, it’s mainly due to heart attack; you can have a burst of one of the vessels due to high blood pressure and chronic stress increases your blood pressure and that’s when you end up getting sudden death.”

Chronic Stress

He added, “We may underestimate stress, but chronic stress is actually very significant factor (in health complications).

“The other thing is loneliness; you come here (to the diaspora) and you’re lonely … it causes stress. And it has been found that the impact of loneliness on your health is equivalent to smoking to somebody smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”

Cases have also been reported of migrant care workers paying agents thousands of dollars for visas only to arrive in the UK and find that the companies do not have the promised jobs, and many find themselves not working for several months or, in some cases, working around 20 hours per month which is not enough to meet just their basic survival requirements.

“These stress factors are cumulative,” said Dr Chireka. “You’re lonely, you’re stressed about money and also those in Zimbabwe are also asking for help.

“ … here in the UK, you’re having cultural shock in terms of the weather, the language, the way the system works and also the complaints from clients. There are also frustrations around driving in a new area, new country new road system … people are having to put up with all of that.”

Employers should develop an interest in the physical and psychological well-being of their staff by ensuring their registered with local healthcare system as part of their induction once they arrive in the country and also introduce stress management programmes.

Said Dr Chireka; “There is a lot of stress, but one thing that needs to be done is to equip all our healthcare assistants with stress management techniques and I’m now offering stress management courses.

“And this is one thing I want to encourage all employers, to make sure that they have some form of stress management programmes for their staff.”

He added; The registration process (with the local healthcare system) should not be a problem, but sometimes the process can appear daunting if you are new and some people just don’t bother.

“So, we need employers to actually insist and make sure that its mandatory for all their employees are registered with a GP and also that they are going for their health checks.

“It should be part of their induction to say if you’re on any medication, please register with a GP and make sure that you don’t run out in terms of your medication.”