One day, when I was in Malawi, we drove past a hospital. On the opposite side of the road, among the trees and mud banks, was a village of tents and shacks and makeshift food stalls.
‘For the relatives,’ Everlasting explained. (If you don't know who Everlasting is, click here!) ‘They know what people like to eat - so they can bring tasty food to the sick people in the hospital, good food that will help them get better.’
I don't know how many of you have sampled hospital food recently. But I've come across it twice in the past few months - and in two very different hospitals. Even so, the experience was similar.
Breakfast - cereal, and toast and tea - if you're lucky. You need to be awake when the nurse has five minutes to get it for you. Miss that window, and you have to wait till lunchtime.
Most hospitals give you a lunch menu the day before. But there is no guarantee that they will have whatever is it you have asked for - or if it will be palatable. (Meals are cooked in a central factory, up to three months in advance.) Which is just tough for anyone with a special diet - or even a vegetarian (hardly a ‘special diet’ these days).
Tea - is a tired sandwich or soup that began life in a tin.
It's the cuts, of course - diets reduced to a bare minimum. No thought of offering something tasty and tempting to encourage sick people to eat. Which is why, if you should be visiting a hospital at lunchtime, you will see so many people arriving with plastic boxes full of something truly tasty. ‘They know what people like to eat - so they can bring tasty food to the sick people in the hospital, good food that will help them get better,’ as Everlasting said.
80% of the population of Malawi live in poverty. So it's not surprising that it's a challenge for hospitals to provide adequate nutrition to patients as well as treatments and medication.
But in a wealthy economy like ours? There may be a conversation to be had about whether patients should make a contribution towards their food. But, as things are, patients with relatives nearby who have the time and energy to provide good nutrition will fare better than those with no one. Yet another division between those who have family to fight for them and those who are alone and abandoned.