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Acute shortages and strikes turn Zimbabwe’s hospitals into places of death

October 25th, 2019
by:Cyril Zenda
located in:Zimbabwe
tags:health care, human-rights, Zimbabwe

One evening in early September, Memory Nota suspected that her husband, Bornwell, who was writhing in pain, could have been suffering from hernia. With the help of neighbours, she rushed him to Parirenyatwa Hospital, one of the country’s five major referral hospitals. Barely 24 hours later, she was a widow.

Bornwell had died on the benches of the hospital without having been attended to. On the very same day he fell ill, senior doctors at all public hospitals in Zimbabwe announced that they were going on strike to protest against the abduction of one of their own, Dr. Peter Magombeyi.

Dr. Magombeyi was abducted and tortured by suspected state security agents for leading a strike by junior doctors. They protested against poor salaries and deplorable working conditions in public hospitals.

“We wish we had not even taken him there in the first place,” Nota told relatives who came to console her at their home in a compound on a farm on the outskirts of the capital city, Harare, where her late husband eked out a living as a bricklayer. “Even though the hospital did not even attend to him, they are not releasing his body for burial saying they want to carry out post mortem tests… What will that change for us?” the mother of two complained. Because Bornwell’s case was recorded at the hospital as sudden death, post mortem examination of the body is mandatory. But just as there were no doctors to treat him, there were no doctors to certify his death nor pathologists to carry out the post mortem tests on his body. The body was only released a week later by military doctors without any post mortem examination having been conducted, as the hospital needed to create space in the overwhelmed mortuary to accommodate more new bodies.

This scene is played daily at all public hospitals in Zimbabwe as the neglect of the health sector by the government has turned the facilities from places of hope to places where people only go to die.

Currently Zimbabwe’s doctors are on strike, the sixth time this year alone. Their grievances range from ridiculously poor salaries to a critical shortage of drugs, equipment and consumables. The doctors say even if they remain at work it breaks their hearts to see people dying en masse, as they cannot save them because of the facilities are now hospitals in name only.

It is a development that the doctors, who sometimes are forced to perform surgical operations with bare hands, say not only reduces them to the sordid role of merely certifying deaths, but would make them complicit in patients’ deaths if they are to continue pretending that all is well.

“As consultants, our hearts bleed because of what is prevailing (in the country’s hospitals) and feel that if we continue pretending we can offer full services, we would be complicit in the deaths of our patients”, the senior doctors said in statement.

Since last year, doctors, nurses and other medical professionals have held several meetings with senior government officials where they have repeatedly highlighted the challenges they are facing. The government has always made promises, which are never fulfilled. More often than not, instead of attending to their grievances, the broke government simply resorts to threatening the unhappy health sector professionals.

At these meetings, the doctors have given harrowing stories of the dire situations in the country’s hospitals. From having to clean deep wounds on burn victims – including babies – without first putting them on any pain-killers, to how bandages are washed so that they can be re-used, right to how patients suffer infections inside the hospitals where there are no sterilisers, disinfectants and detergents, let alone protective clothing for medical staff that move from one bed to another in the crowded hospitals.

“There is no urgency, there is no priority, people are not listening to us” said a tearful Dr. Azza Mashumba, the head of the Paediatrics’ division at Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals. At a meeting called by Health minister, Obadiah Moyo, Dr.. Mashumba said: “I have written a million lists, I have knocked on a thousand doors, I come to work and I do my very best, but my outputs are stillbirths, my outputs are disabled babies.”

Such are the harrowing accounts given by doctors of how people are dying from easily treatable diseases at government hospitals owing to the shortage of basic medical equipment, medicines and other accessories.

“We start them (patients) on chemotherapy and in two weeks, the syringes are finished. We interrupt treatment, then we restart and it doesn’t work. What have we done for them? There is no urgency; I am here because I am desperate. I have tried, we have tried, but I feel we are not being heard. We need to move, we are not working,” Dr. Mashumba fumed.

Dr. Faith Muchemwa, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon in the burns unit at the same main referral hospital, narrated how nurses are forced to wash used bandages with their bare hands so that they can be re-used, putting their health and those of the patients at grave risk.

“At the burns unit, there are no basic sundries and medicines. We have no bandages; they wash bandages and hang them in the bathroom and reuse. Obviously, they are not sterile. We have seen so many infections in the burns unit”, said Dr. Muchemwa.

“The health personnel have no protective gear to prevent cross infections. This is despite the fact that we are dealing with open wounds and puss. Patients are dying more than ever because we are operating once every two weeks” a despondent Muchemwa added.

Zimbabwe has only three doctors for every 20,000 of its citizens.

Nurses, who are also almost always on strike, are working for three days a week as the government cannot afford to pay them, while thousands others have been trained but remain unemployed as the government has frozen recruitment of public sector workers in an attempt to manage its wage bill.

With 98 percent of medical drugs coming from donors, the health sector appears never to be a priority for the government which always blames all its shortcomings on the targeted sanctions that the United States of America and other Western countries have imposed on Zimbabwe’s leaders for nearly two decades as a way of forcing them to improve their human rights record. Just like in the days of the late former president Robert Mugabe, the leaders themselves seek medical treatments abroad as the decrepit facilities at home pose a grave threat to their own health.

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Author
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Senior doctors at all public hospitals in Zimbabwe announced that they were going on strike to protest against the abduction of one of their own.
Dr Magombeyi was abducted and tortured by suspected state security agents for leading a strike by junior doctors against poor salaries and deplorable working conditions in public hospitals.
Since last year, doctors, nurses and other medical professionals have held several meetings with senior government officials where they have repeatedly highlighted the challenges they are facing.
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