Zimbabwe: No health services to talk of

The country's two largest referral hospitals in Harare are as good as closed.

They are turning away patients because they have run out of drugs, equipment while health personnel, including some supporting staff, have reportedly just stopped going to work.

For the past week, Parirenyatwa and Harare Hospitals, Zimbabwe's largest health institutions, have only been attending to a handful of critically ill patients and road accident victims.

Patients coming for regular check-ups were being turned away as there was no staff.

When The Standard visited the two public hospitals there was very little evidence to show that the health centres were fully operational.

On Thursday and Friday afternoon Parirenyatwa Hospital's casualty department and the emergency centre were deserted.

Two senior nurses were advising patients in need of medical attention to try private hospitals as nurses and doctors were on strike.

Before even presenting our case, The Standard was advised to go and "seek treatment elsewhere".

Patients, some even critically ill, were being turned away,

although the nurses were insisting those were the one category of patients they were treating.

"They told me to go back because there are no doctors but look my son is dying," said 34-year-old Patience Tinarwo as she left the hospital dejected. "No one was prepared to help him."

Tinarwo's son, four-year-old Edmond, had been referred to the hospital from a local clinic with suspected meningitis.

He looked very weak and wasted. His mother said because of the continuous headaches he had been crying often for the past two days.

Insiders also told The Standard that nurses and other support staff at the two hospitals had been on strike for nearly three weeks while senior doctors stopped work last week saying they could not cope anymore with the workload in the absence of nurses.

The senior doctors were also protesting against poor working conditions and infrastructure. They believe the conditions are unbearable for them to come to work and watch patients die.

The Standard understands that late last week senior doctors reportedly discharged a large number of patients admitted at both hospitals saying the institutions had become "death traps".

Insiders say some of those discharged on Thursday and Friday last week by the senior doctors were still very ill and would, under normal circumstances, not be sent home.

"We know some are going home to die but there is nothing doctors can do. We have tried for a long time but this hospital is now worse. They may pick up many other infections and diseases," said one doctor, who requested anonymity.

"It is better they (patients) go home or seek treatment elsewhere than wait to die here alone."

The Standard also observed that wards in both hospitals were seriously depleted. However, the heavy presence of student nurses - who are reportedly spending most of their time doing nothing - was noticeable.

They are holding fort in the absence of qualified nurses. Also, in the absence of senior junior doctors are reportedly taking care of the few patients but say they fear liability in case a patient dies under their care.

Under normal circumstances junior doctors are supposed to be supervised by senior or middle-level doctors.

Dr Douglas Gwatidzo, chairman of the Zimbabwe Doctors for Human Rights (ZDHR), said the unfolding crisis was clear testimony of a government that had failed totally to protect its people.

He called on the donor community to intervene urgently to set up a disaster fund to save millions of lives in the country. "There is need for urgent interventions without which many people that depend on the public health sector, will die," Gwatidzo said. "The government and the donor community must chip in now, not tomorrow."

Already, lives are being lost because of the collapse of the health sector.

Since the beginning of the year, Cholera alone has killed 120 people and more deaths could occur before year-end unless authorities act urgently to improve sanitation and water supplies in cities and towns.

ZADHR blamed the outbreak of cholera on broken-down public infrastructure, the result of years of unprecedented economic decline and political turmoil in the country.

The cholera-related deaths have been cumulatively recorded this year including cases from earlier outbreaks between February and August in Manicaland, Mashonaland Central, Mashonaland East and Masvingo.

Senior doctors said they unsuccessfully tried to engage Minister of Health David Parirenyatwa.

Parirenyatwa was not immediately available for comment.

Chairman of the Health Services Board Lovemore Mbengeranwa said it would not be possible to address the problems bedevilling the health sector because of the current economic meltdown.

His board had made numerous representations in a bid to address the nurses and doctors' concerns.

"We know doctors and nurses need better salaries and working conditions and have made recommendations to the ministry but unfortunately our recommendations are sometimes not taken up," Mbengeranwa told delegates who were attending a Community Working Group on Health (CWGH) national conference last week.

For example, he said, his board had recommended some time ago that the lowest paid health worker get a salary of $400 000 a month but that was slashed to $31 000.

While senior government officials fly to South Africa and other countries with good health delivery systems for their own hospital treatment, ordinary Zimbabweans are left wondering how much longer the nation and international community can continue to watch as people die.