DR AGNES Mahomva is a specialist public health physician with decades of experience in both the private and public sectors. Last year, she was appointed Chief Co-ordinator of the national response to the Covid-19 pandemic in the Office of the President and Cabinet and has been a leading member of the taskforce charged with the country’s response to coronavirus. In our ongoing commemoration of Women’s Month, our reporter Veronica Gwaze spoke to Dr Mahomva who looked back at her journey in the public health sector and assessment of the country’s response to the pandemic.
Q: Who is Dr Agnes Mahomva?
A: I am a specialist public health physician with a passion for public health programming at local regional and international levels.
Before becoming Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health and Child Care, I worked for 14 years with the Elizabeth Glaser Paediatric AIDS Foundation in several positions.
First, as its regional technical and medical advisor for the Africa region covering the foundation’s HIV programmes in 14 countries then had a short stint with the foundation’s Washington DC Global Policy Advisory Unit before transitioning to the position of Country Director for the foundation’s Zimbabwe programme.
Prior to my work with the foundation, I spent five years with the AIDS and tuberculosis unit of the Ministry of Health and Child Care as the national prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) programme co-ordinator.
I am very proud of my HIV work with both the foundation and the Ministry of Health and Child Care.
This saw me receive a USAID Auxilia Chimusoro leadership award and later the Director of the Year Award from the Institute of Directors Zimbabwe (IoDZ) in the parastatal, NGO and public sector enterprise sectors.
Q: Can you tell us about your upbringing and how you ended up in the public health field?
A: I was born and raised at Old Mutare Mission in Manicaland where I attended Hartzell Primary school.
I did my secondary school education at St David’s High School, Bonda Mission in Juliasdale, Nyanga.
After high school, I proceeded to the United States of America where I obtained a Bachelor’s Degree at Berry College in Rome, Georgia.
I trained as an electro-cardiographer at the Washington Clinic in Washington DC and worked there for a year and half.
I moved back home following the country’s independence and worked at Parirenyatwa and Harare Central (now Sally Mugabe) hospitals for three years at which point I decided to go back to university to study Medicine.
I graduated with a medical degree from the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) and decided to work for the Harare City Health Department.
There I rose from being a clinical officer to assistant director responsible for the 42 municipal clinics.
I later became assistant director responsible for both the Beatrice and Wilkins Infectious Diseases Hospitals.
I later on specialised in community/public health at UZ and went on a two-year stint as a public health officer seconded to Manicaland province at the Provincial Medical director’s office.
Q: What were the biggest challenges you faced as a professional woman on your way to the top?
A: Challenges I have faced include balancing home life and work and gender stereotyping including being labelled “emotional” or being perceived as not being tough.
Institutional mindsets which tend to deliberately and sometimes subconsciously favour men especially as one gets close to the top, have been a big challenge.
The biggest lesson I have learnt is to always turn challenges into opportunities and to never compromise on principles.
It pays to be professional, tenacious and respectful.
As a result, I am proud that the many challenges I have faced in my career journey have not broken me, but instead have made me stronger and resilient.
Q: President Mnangagwa appointed you the Chief Co-ordinator of the national response to the Covid-19 pandemic in the Office of the President and Cabinet following the outbreak of the coronavirus last year. What does being appointed to such an important position mean to you?
A: It means a lot of responsibility.
It meant using the skills I had acquired and successfully utilised in a previous, but similar role as the national PMTCT programme co-ordinator.
It meant learning new ways of doing business with a Cabinet Inter-Ministerial Taskforce.
It meant a lot of hard work. It meant patience. It meant resilience. It meant honouring the trust that had been bestowed on me. It meant a lot to me!
Q: Has this station changed the way you view life and your approach to work?
A: The transition from the permanent secretary role to being the chief co-ordinator happened with immediate effect.
My life therefore changed overnight.
It meant I had to make fast adjustments at work and at home.
The good thing is, Covid-19 changed all our social lives, so it was comforting to know that I was not alone in going through massive changes in life.
Virtual meetings became the norm and so did research, studies and interaction with peer professionals.
Q: What have been the major challenges you have faced in the fight against Covid-19 so far?
A: The biggest challenge is that this is a new disease; no one knew what was going to happen and we needed to think on our toes and work fast.
The other challenge was that during that time, we were coming from a difficult time when our economy was struggling.
As we were beginning to find our way out of our economic challenges, Covid-19 then hit us.
That meant acquiring all the things that we wanted including Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and testing consumables was a challenge because resources were inadequate.
There was also the challenge with human resources.
Generally, the economy was not on our side, so were the human resources, and more importantly we had an ailing health infrastructure.
So we really had a number of challenges, but despite all those challenges, we were strategic.
We made sure we had our plans in place before we even recorded the first case.
We went into lockdown early before we even had a lot of cases and it gave us time to prepare such that by the time we got hit by the first wave, we were able to manage it with what we had.
We were successful in controlling it to a point that we were actually victims of our own success.
Very few people out there believed that the virus had been defeated, arguing that it was just the common cold.
Because of that, people became complacent and we were hit by an even bigger second wave.
Q: As we approach the winter months, there are fears of a potential third wave. What can we do to avoid such a scenario?
A: As long as we still have active cases, there are chances of a third, fourth or more waves.
Remember, where we are right now is exactly where we were towards the end of the first wave.
We thought we had won the battle and we relaxed, then the second wave came.
So, as long as we still have cases, it means there are chances of another wave.
This, therefore, means that we should leave no room for complacency.
We need to continue adhering to the Covid-19 regulations until the whole world is in the clear.
Q: You have become an inspiration to many young women and girls out there as a result of your work in public. What are your words of encouragement to fellow women and girls?
A: Be tenacious. Do not allow anyone to discourage you.
Do not accept “No” for an answer and always be respectful.
Your passion and determination will pave way for success. Learn from your mistakes and turn challenges into opportunities.
Finally put everything in God’s hands then relax.