Zimbabwe healthcare crisis deepens as virus rages

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Harare (AFP)

Heartbreaking images of seven stillborn infants wrapped separately in green sheets and arranged in a row on a hospital counter in Zimbabwe have sparked public outrage.

Seven of eight births in one night last week at a single public hospital in Zimbabwe’s capital were still, and doctors warned the incident was just part of the iceberg of the dire state of care health in this southern African country.

The public health care system is on the verge of collapse with shortages of medicines and basic equipment and overworked and underpaid staff.

Experts say the health crisis has its roots in the country’s wider economic collapse which brought down hyperinflation, closed factories, pushed the official unemployment rate to around 90% and saw the majority of the population sink deeper. in poverty and barely able to afford a square meal.

The coronavirus pandemic has added to the crises.

Nurses across the country have been on a slow roll for months to demand improved pay and protective gear against coronaviruses.

They have since been joined by senior and junior doctors.

Burying his agriculture minister Perrance Shiri, who died of coronavirus last week, Zimbabwean leader Emmerson Mnangagwa called on health workers in the face of the pandemic’s rapid spread.

As of Saturday evening, the country recorded 490 cases, its highest number of new COVID-19 infections in a 24-hour cycle.

The total number of diagnosed cases now stands at 3,659, with the number of deaths more than doubling to 69 in ten days.

“I call on our medical staff to act in the national interest and show responsibility,” Mnangagwa said in a eulogy on Friday.

“Your grievances, which we recognize and continue to address, cannot come at the expense of loss of life.

“When the pandemic spreads and the death toll rises, there are no winners, not at all. We are all dying, ”he said.

But nurses who staged separate protests at major public hospitals last month have vowed not to turn back the clock until their grievances are resolved.

“Nurses are infected every day,” said the president of the Nurses Union of the Urban and Rural Council Simbarashe Tafirenyika.

“We’re forced to wear N95 masks for seven days and surgical masks for three days, but we’re supposed to use them once before throwing them away.

“We cannot continue to die and we will protect ourselves and our families by staying at home,” he said.

– ‘We are all gonna die’ –

The country has not had a health minister for almost a month.

President Mnangagwa sacked Health Minister Obadiah Moyo on July 7 after he was charged with corruption for illegally awarding a $ 20 million contract for coronavirus test kits and protective gear.

Most public hospitals are without an administrative head following their mass dismissals over corruption allegations linked to the acquisition of coronavirus equipment.

Doctors attribute the complications that lead to the death of infants to the difficulties of pregnant women in accessing health care when needed.

The few staff who show up for work in the government hospitals that serve the majority of poverty stricken Zimbabweans feel overwhelmed.

“The situation is very worrying,” the head of the Zimbabwe Hospital Physicians Association, Norman Matara, told AFP.

“One brave doctor only managed to take this photo (of dead infants), but it’s a very small number considering what’s going on in other hospitals,” Matara said.

“We don’t have PPE and all the government does is promise. There are no drugs in the hospitals. It’s hard to do our job, ”said Matara.

According to Matara, 15% of viral infections recorded nationally were detected among health workers.

“It’s a huge number. This shows that we are at a high risk of getting infected because we cannot continue to work without protective clothing, ”said Matara.

A pressure group, the Community Health Working Group, is urging President Mnangagwa to urgently repair the health sector and end needless death and suffering.

“There is a lack of serious policy needed to address current health challenges,” said group director Itai Rusike.

“Without a background minister and a permanent secretary to lead from the front in the face of this crippling industrial action, the ministry operates on automatic pilot,” Rusike added.

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