Crying for help: The dire state of Zimbabwe’s healthcare system

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  • Limpopo’s Health MEC is facing criticism after a video surfaced showing her berating a woman, believed to be Zimbabwean, for seeking treatment in a SA hospital.
  • Many Zimbabweans use South Africa’s health services because healthcare has collapsed in their country.
  • A woman, who lives in Beitbridge, says seeking healthcare in SA is like going to a private hospital.

As Limpopo Health MEC Phophi Ramathuba faces criticism regarding her comments to a woman, believed to be Zimbabwean, her counterparts in Zimbabwe are coming under renewed pressure about the state of the healthcare system in that country.

In the video, Ramathuba tells a woman, who she assumes is Zimbabwean because she speaks Shona, that there is a “huge strain” on South Africa’s health budget because “he [President Emmerson Mnangagwa] doesn’t give me money to operate (sic) you guys, and I am operating you with my limited resources. You are killing my health system”.

Reacting to the video, Zimbabwean opposition politician, Linda Tsungirirai Masarira, wrote an open letter, which was addressed to the Vice-President and Minister of Health and Childcare, Constantino Chiwenga.

Masarira wrote that the Zimbabwean government had failed its people.

“Government has failed to ensure people’s right to access to affordable, quality and basic healthcare in government hospitals. Most, if not all, public hospitals lack basic antibiotics, painkillers and chronic disease medication.

“Considering that the ministry of health gets at least 15% of the national budget, it is perplexing how the ministry of health has continuously failed to provide quality healthcare to the people of Zimbabwe,” she said.

Chiwenga is in Togo to attend a World Health Organisation global health leaders meeting.

By the time of going to press, there was no response from his office.

The government’s information secretary, Nick Mangwana, did not take calls.

Seeking treatment outside Zimbabwe

South African politician and medical doctor Phophi Constance Ramathuba

Many Zimbabweans seek medical treatment in the country’s neighbours – South Africa, Botswana and Zambia.

While many go to public health facilities, wealthier Zimbabweans seek treatment at private hospitals.

In 2019, Section 27’s Sasha Stevenson, writing on Bhekisisa, noted that legislation suggested that foreign nationals from South African Development Community countries should be treated like South Africans, paying for healthcare in public hospitals, based on a means test, which takes into account the individual’s level of income.

Fungai Tsuma is one of many Zimbabweans who live in Beitbridge, near Musina in Limpopo, and occasionally seeks treatment in South Africa.

Tsuma says South Africa’s public hospitals are equal to, if not better, than private facilities in Zimbabwe.

“It’s like going to a private hospital because the healthcare is miles ahead of what’s there at home.

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Relatives of a sick man cart him away after being turned away from the main referral Parirenyatwa hospital in Harare during a recent doctors’ strike

“But now it’s going to be a bit tricky after a video of a Zimbabwean in a South African health facility being shouted at has gone viral.”

For women, who live in towns bordering Zambia and South Africa, it makes sense to cross the borders to access better facilities and care.

In Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe’s prime tourist destination, expectant mothers go to Livingstone in Zambia for healthcare.

Those who use Zimbabwean hospitals never know what they’re going to encounter.

“If it’s not power shortages, it’s a shortage of medication as basic as pain relievers,” a nurse told News24.

At some clinics, women are required to bring three litres of diesel for a generator, just in case there’s a blackout during Caesarean section operations.

Zimbabweans who go to Botswana don’t receive free treatment in hospitals. Those that end up using Botswana health facilities go to private institutions, where they pay.

Meanwhile, a woman who suffered a miscarriage at Sally Mugabe Hospital in Harare successfully sued the government and is due to be paid ZW$900 000 (about R20 000).

Valerie Chibaya initially sued for ZW$1.5 million for pain and suffering after she lost her unborn baby because of neglect by nurses in 2020.

Her case has inspired many more women to share their experiences at the hands of demoralised health workers in ill-equipped hospitals.

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Speaking at a press conference hosted by Women and Law in Southern Africa in Harare, another woman suing the government said she gave birth on a hospital floor because there were no beds, and her child was injured in the process.

“I gave birth on the floor and my baby had red patches in one eye and on the forehead, after he fell to the floor while I was giving birth.

“The nurses only cut the umbilical cord and left him without proper dressing or cleaning. My mother-in-law cleaned and clothed him when she came for the morning visit,” she said.

According to the United Nations, there are 37.9 deaths per 1 000 live births in Zimbabwe.

The rate in Zimbabwe is higher compared to its more economically progressive neighbours, such as Botswana, with 28.788 deaths per 1 000 live births, and South Africa with 25.772 deaths per 1 000 live births.

In Harare last year, nine clinics that served as birth centres were shut down because of a lack of trained midwives.

Nurses earn an equivalent of R3 000 as such, many are leaving the country for greener pastures.

This year, government nurses have gone on strike twice, demanding better remuneration and working conditions. However, the government has failed to meet their demands.