President Robert Mugabe (93), the oldest living head of state in the world, has travelled over 300 hours, covering almost 180 000km and gobbling millions of taxpayers’ money this year.
Besides the cost, the ageing leader is clearly putting his frail body under a lot of stress from the demanding process of jetting from one country to another.
The president, who has made headlines for either being caught on world cameras napping or walking off balance, has a penchant for spending more time in the air than at his Munhumutapa offices attending to the critical governance and economic problems besetting his country.
According to experts, flying can be hazardous to one’s health, more so when one is of advanced age. The preparations of flying an elderly person can also be daunting for cabin and crew.
Mugabe recently travelled with 70 people to the 72nd United Nations General Assembly but despite being surrounded by that entourage, which must have caretakers and health personnel like nurses and doctors, the effects of fatigue and old age were on display when he staggered to the podium to deliver his speech.
Two days after social media shared a video of him crab-walking with the help of aides, Mugabe was caught on camera sleeping as United States President Donald Trump made his maiden address at the event.
According to an article in the Daily Mail of the United Kingdom, too much flying has its repercussions, like that of swollen legs.
It says in part: “Sitting still for long periods in cramped conditions, dehydration and low cabin pressure all contribute to the problem, according to the American Heart Association. As you get older, the risk factor goes up. Watch out for legs swelling, feeling heavy and socks causing indentation marks around the ankles where they didn’t before.”
Mugabe’s swollen feet have been captured many times on camera.
In 2015, Mugabe’s deteriorating health situation and age was reflected by his dramatic fall at the Harare International Airport. That also followed another relatively long flight from Addis Ababa.
Sources then told the Zimbabwe Independent that aides close to Mugabe had closely observed in recent years that the president had been fast deteriorating in terms of physical stature, mental alertness and health.
Mugabe’s spin doctors sought to rubbish the incident by claiming the president “broke the fall” but health experts said jet lag was a source of fatigue and a loss of concentration which could be attributed to the president’s mishap.
Experts also said flying frequently, especially at old age, could affect one’s hearing.
According to aviation experts, any flight that is more than four hours could expose one to hearing loss — and the more one flew, the greater the risk.
Recently, Mugabe flies 14 hours to China via Singapore, which is a tall order for a nonagenarian. Many people enquire on the safety of flying their parents or relatives whose ages range from 75 to 90.
Most airlines do not have an age restriction but sometimes a “fit to fly” medical certificate is required for senior citizens.
According to a source at Air Zimbabwe, “Two special beds are loaded on the plane. We remove the first class seats to accommodate them whenever the president flies any of Air Zimbabwe’s aeroplanes given that he does not have a presidential jet that would otherwise come equipped with such facilities.”
A local doctor added: “As people age, there are a lot of changes to their bodies and they become more susceptible to illness and injury. Airline travel can exacerbate these risks due to the stress, high altitudes and other hazards involved in travelling or in just being on a plane.”
Besides air travel, Mugabe has naturally had failing health that has seen him frequently flying to Singapore for medical care. Given the state of the hospitals in the country, the president and most of his ministers seek medical help from developed nations.
In 2011, WikiLeaks cables alleged that Mugabe had prostate cancer. His battle with the disease was reportedly revealed to James McGee, the former US Ambassador to Harare, by Gideon Gono, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe governor, during a private meeting in June 2008.
But Mugabe’s spin doctor, presidential spokesperson George Charamba has always scoffed media reports and speculation on his principal’s health, saying the president only flew to Singapore for medical attention to his eyes.
“At 93, there is something that happens to the eyes and the president cannot suffer bright lights. If you look at his poise, he looks down, avoids direct lighting. In the case of [former South African President Nelson] Mandela, if you remember, you were not allowed to even use flashes whenever he was in the room. That is what happens at 93 and Mandela, I do not think lived as long as the president did. Let us disabuse ourselves,” Charamba was quoted saying.
Perhaps another sign of how fatigue has taken its toll on the aged leader is that he has broken his tradition of being welcomed at the airport by huge crowds, and has for most of his trips, sneaked back into the country, quietly.
As the 2018 presidential watershed election approaches, many people are questioning whether Mugabe, who turns 94 in February next year — six years shy of a century — will be able to shuttle in between cities to campaign.
As the sun sets for the political chess games of Zimbabwe, the fragility of the man who has ruled the country for 37 years comes into question, but, most of all, the health implications of spending time on state business on earth and in the air will come into light.