Zimbabwe health crisis: ‘My cousin died as the doctors are all on strike’

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The scene in the car park at Zimbabwe’s biggest hospital was heart-breaking.

People were sitting on the ground waiting to collect a body from the morgue at Parirenyatwa Hospital, which has been paralysed by the nationwide doctors’ strike.

Two of the women, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said their cousin had died from kidney failure the previous day.

“She was admitted over the weekend, with an enlarged heart and kidneys. She was swollen from head to toe,” one of them told me about the ordeal.

“But there is no record that she was ever attended to by a doctor. They put her on oxygen. She had been waiting to receive dialysis for two days. But she needed a doctor’s sign-off.

“Politics needs to be put to the side, on health matters. The sick should be attended to.”

Her companion told me she had lost three relatives during the strike: her mother-in-law in September, her uncle last week and now her cousin.

“Saving lives should be the priority. In our neighbourhood, we are recording so many funerals. It is always the same story: ‘They were sick and then they died.’ It is devastating,” she said.

There are no official figures about how many people have been turned away from public hospitals or who have lost their lives since early September when junior doctors stopped going to work.

But the anecdotes provide a glimpse into the crisis Zimbabwe’s public healthcare system faces.

One pregnant young woman at the Parirenyatwa Hospital, with a huge gash above her left eye, told me she had been severely assaulted by her husband and could no longer feel her baby moving.

She had been turned away from one public hospital and was trying her luck at the main hospital in the capital, Harare, where she had heard she might find a few military doctors.

‘We can’t afford to get to work’

The doctors do not call it a strike – rather an “incapacitation”, saying they cannot afford to go to work.

They are demanding salary increases to cope with triple-digit inflation amid Zimbabwe’s collapsing economy.

Most of the striking doctors take home less $100 (£77) a month, not nearly enough to buy food and groceries – or get to work.

Not long after the strike began their union leader, Dr Peter Magombeyi, was abducted for five days in mysterious circumstances – one of a number of abductions this year of those seen as critical of the government.

The authorities deny any involvement in these cases, but those taken are usually released after being beaten up and threatened.

Since then 448 doctors have been fired for striking and for violating a labour court ruling that ordered them back to work. Another 150 face still face disciplinary hearings.

Ten days ago, a journalist tweeted footage showing the deserted wards of Parirenyatwa Hospital, describing the scene as “empty and ghostly”.

Senior doctors, who had been filling in for the junior colleagues by providing emergency services, have now also downed their stethoscopes and scalpels.

They are demanding that the government reinstate the fired doctors and meet their wage demands.

The strikes have crippled the health system, and nurses at municipal clinics are also not reporting for work as they are pressing for a living wage.

One nurse told me her transport costs alone gobble up half her salary.

‘Death traps’

It has worsened the conditions in a health sector that was already collapsing.

Senior doctors describe the public hospitals as “death traps”.

For months they have faced shortages of basics such as bandages, gloves and syringes. Some recently purchased equipment is substandard and obsolete, they say.

The government says it cannot afford to increase salaries. It is not only the doctors but the whole civil service that is pressing for pay increases, even though wages already account for more than 80% of the national budget.

But the workers representatives say it is a question of priorities. Top officials all drive top of the range luxury vehicles and regularly seek medical treatment abroad.

In September, Robert Mugabe, the country’s former president, died aged 95 in Singapore, where he had been receiving treatment since April.

Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga, the former army chief behind the military takeover that led to Mugabe’s overthrow two years ago, has just returned from four months of medical treatment in China.

On his return Chiwenga lambasted the doctors for striking.

The government says it will recruit medical staff from other organisations and from abroad. Cuba has over the years supplied Zimbabwe with doctors and specialists.

Billionaire’s lifeline

No-one knows how this will end.

UK-based Zimbabwean telecoms billionaire Strive Masiyiwa has offered to set up a 100m Zimbabwean dollar ($6.25m; £4.8m) fundto try to break the impasse.

It would, among other things, pay up to 2,000 doctors a little more than US$300 a month and provide them with transport to work for a period of six months.

There has been no reaction yet from the doctors.

The strike has divided Zimbabweans.

Tendai Biti, a former finance minister in a unity government and the deputy leader of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), has called for an urgent review of doctors’ conditions of service.

“A country with a budget of Z$64bn can’t surely fail to resolve this… the issue here is leadership,” he said.

Analyst Stembile Mpofu says it is no longer a labour issue but a political one.

“It is difficult to find the doctors’ position as less heartless than that of the politicians as far as the people of Zimbabwe are concerned,” she says.

Many here, including the senior doctors’ association, have used the term “silent genocide” to describe the crisis.

So many are dying quietly. It’s not clear how many more people will continue to die as this stand-off nears its third month.