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Zim missed opportunity to contain COVID-19

By Joel Mandaza

Zimbabwe is in a spot of bother.

COVID-19 is finally here in full force and what scientists like Professor Solwayo Ngwenya of Mpilo Hospital dreaded is becoming reality.

The country has no capacity to deal with the pandemic.

Before it got into the community, there were attempts to give an impression that the country is ready.

But time has since shown us that the current state of our health care cannot be described as ready to handle COVID-19, even under the worst of hallucinations.

The reason why this country will struggle with COVID-19 has nothing to do with complacency but a leadership bankruptcy of the highest order.

When Zimbabwe went into lockdown it was the opportunity for the country to put the health system in order.

It was the time for the country to tie loose ends in preparation for the spike but our government in either fatal arrogance or incompetence began claiming victories during the period.

The government officials kept touring the same facilities saying they are ready, pulling wool over people’s eyes.

Ministers were having repeat tours of Wilkins Hospital and Parirenyatwa saying they are checking the preparedness, each statement that came after attempted to push this idea.

Slowly, after assurances, returning citizens and reopening, cases began to rise.

They did not spike overnight, there was still time to get the house in order but the Zimbabwean government chose not to.

It is a spectacular case of bungling.

The government should have strengthened health systems in the downtime.

They should have addressed infrastructure shortages first.

Zimbabwe`s health sector has been degenerating towards a guaranteed collapse for years since the days of David Parirenyatwa as health minister.

A health system that fails to cope with normal consultations is guaranteed to cow under pressure.

This is why Zimbabwe loses people to cholera, a medieval disease.

Zanu PF in all its rule has never prioritized heath care, this explains why the government has never been able to commensurately pay health workers.

Even during the so-called glorious GNU days, part of doctors` salaries were donated to the government.

In the same manner, Anti-Retroviral treatment continued being donated to us.

Since the beginning of the HIV virus, we have never been self-sufficient in getting our people medication.

Zimbabwe has faced many deaths which have been described by health professionals as avoidable.

READ: Zim hospitals turn away patients

This is because the country has never known a point of abundance in the health sector, doctors have had to improvise as the Health Services Board up to now treats all pleas towards useful consumables critical in medical as political talk.

Zimbabwe was supposed to have expedited the building of low COVID-19 admission centres during the lockdown, but no, the government was busy with other important things like building a Mbuya Nehanda statues and coming up with national fabric.

Other countries like Ghana have been building medical centres while we were busy setting money aside for the first lady’s gallivanting across the country and getting involved in accidents while she is at it.

There has been a lot of needless and adventurous expenditure during this lockdown which makes very little sense considering how Zimbabwe is performing economically.

Many people- including the elite-will die seeking medical help because our public infrastructure entrusted with handling the cases is neither ready nor capable.
Zimbabwe is going to lose lives it was not supposed to lose because of lack of preparedness; right now the biggest COVID-19 referral hospital Parirenyatwa told the country they have seven ventilators.

One wonders how much money was spent on decorations at those state house events, how much of that money would have been useful towards securing more ventilators in the middle of a pandemic?

Even Cain Mathema’s ill fated experiment of trying to open schools as cases rose. One wonders how much PPEs and other critical resources used as attempts to operationalise such ambitions would have gone to protect our health workers who are testing positive of COVID-19?

Aside from the infrastructure, there is a question of the lingering human resource which is grossly underpaid.

The fact that COVID-19 is highly infectious is killing medical personnel should have been enough to bring the government to the negotiating table with meaningful concessions.

Instead, they took an arrogant route and chose to wing it, another miscalculation which has since started to backfire.

As the government was busy approving overpriced masks and gloves from Drax International, nurses were releasing distress calls saying they do not feel remunerated decently.

Their salaries had gotten to around US$30 equivalent, a nurse in the United Kingdom can single handedly afford to employ 10 Zimbabwean nurses and still have disposable income.

By then COVID-19 cases were still few and this would have given authorities a strong footing in the negotiations.

But the powers that be had other ideas, detrimental ideas.

Now that cases are rising, nurses have gone on strike they are now beyond day 40.

What this means is our hospitals have become death traps.

The nurses who brave going on duty are testing positive of COVID-19 at an alarming rate.

Right now Mpilo Hospital in Bulawayo is outsourcing nurses because they do not have personnel anymore, their workers are either in quarantine or effecting job action.

In Harare the narrative is unfortunately similar, Parirenyatwa and Harare Hospital even the maternity wards have turned into citadels of agony.

The country’s Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologist described the situation in hospitals as “grave,” and “beyond dire”.

“Our women are suffering and we believe that all stakeholders, the government, medical practitioners, civil society and individuals must act to save the voiceless mothers and babies,” read the statement.

It was reported that earlier during the week, at Harare Hospital seven out of eight babies delivered on the day were stillbirths.

Doctors attributed this to a shortage in staff.

All this could have been avoided if there had been proactive attempts at addressing the issue before a crisis had ensued.

Our government is not shy to balloon its expenditure doing everything else except pay those that work for it.

Professionals in Zimbabwe have been reduced to vendors due to the low salaries they receive, a nurse has the potential to earn more money selling tomatoes from the boot of their car than risking COVID-19 as a frontline worker.

This is why medical practitioners have in recent days been able to sustain lengthy strikes, anything else they can do is paying more than their job.

Our government will need to pull a miracle to solve the mess we find ourselves in, there is no substantive health minister, permanent secretary and five of major hospital directors across the country were fired.

Bosses of the national medicine repository Natpharm are facing criminal charges while a number of directors in the Ministry of health were fired.

Essentially, the operationalisation of the country’s COVID-19 response is being executed by people in acting capacity across the board.

There is potential of chaos as people in acting capacity sometimes lack the authoritative discretion needed in life and death situations such as these.

Another missed opportunity is that of social services.

If the government had set aside money to help families during lockdown, the country would afford to go into total lockdown even for a month and people would not need to die trying to find food.

As it stands, it is impossible because the majority include the country itself survives on a hand to mouth basis.

Zimbabwe is facing a full scale COVID-19 assault but cannot afford to fully lockdown because people do not have savings or disposable income.

Those are the effects of poor and inept planning.

The early tight lockdown should have given the government hard data and statistics on how much it costs to close business.

This means the decision-making around such would have been more precise especially to do with timelines of these lockdowns.

Lockdowns are meant to ensure that health systems are now overwhelmed, a country like Zimbabwe with perennially overwhelmed facilities would have saved up for the option but they lacked the foresight.

As it stands, there is not enough medical support for those who test positive, at the same time there is not enough money to finance a full lockdown, there are people still owed $300 by the government from the first lockdown.

Authorities should cure themselves of the need to engage in needless propaganda.

At one point, state media ran with the story that students from Harare Institute of Technology were working on ventilators.

That was around April, one wonders when the ventilators will be ready as the need has risen.

Questions need to be asked on how President Mnangagwa is always receiving donations at State House but there never appears to be enough.

How are nurses struggling for PPEs when the head of state accepts donations every other day, where are the donations going?

Zimbabwe has had a forgiving winter, with the way people have been relaxed, it is good thing numbers are still under 10 000 if it was not for the authorities lethargy, a more plausible response would have been mounted.

We missed an opportunity! Get all COVID-19 statistics for Zimbabwe from COVID-TRACKER

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Daniel Chigundu

Daniel Chigundu is the news editor for OpenParlyZW an online platform that covers Parliament of Zimbabwe activities using social media (Twitter and Facebook). He is currently the secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Parliamentary Journalists Forum and a board member of Digital Communication Network.

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