Zimbabwe shows what happens when the coronavirus collides with one of the world’s most run-down health systems.
Nurses at a major public hospital in the capital are on strike after colleagues died because of a lack of personal protective equipment, medical facilities have run out of oxygen and undertakers can’t keep up.
Zimbabweans are all too aware that if they do get sick, the health-care system won’t be able to help them. That includes government spokesman Nick Mangwana, who warned citizens not to catch the virus because hospitals are overwhelmed, and a well-known politician who caused an uproar when he told people to buy their own ventilators.
Amid the huge numbers of infections and deaths in the U.S. and Europe, Africa’s pandemic has been an afterthought. But for countries with sizable outbreaks and tattered health systems, the pain and death from Covid-19 is fearsome.
Two decades of economic stagnation has left Zimbabwe with few resources to face an outbreak that’s gaining momentum despite a lockdown and a dusk-to-dawn curfew. The official figures are at odds with accounts provided by nurses and patients. While just over 30,000 cases and more than 900 deaths have been confirmed so far, there’s been little testing and fatalities have surged to repeated daily records this month.
“Zimbabwe is the worst prepared country in southern Africa,” Robert Besseling, chief executive officer of Pangea-Risk, a Mauritius-based political risk consultancy, said in an emailed response to questions. “Hospitals are struggling to cope, while there is insufficient foreign exchange to bid competitively with other states for medicine and oxygen supply.”
Nurses at Sally Mugabe Hospital, named after former President Robert Mugabe’s first wife, in the capital Harare say they get only one face mask per 12-hour shift and have to wear protective aprons normally used in bakeries.
Since the Jan. 7 death of senior nurse Miriam Pundu, they’ve refused to return to work until they are given adequate personal protective equipment.
“Like every health system around the world Covid has put a lot of strain,” said Mthuli Ncube, Zimbabwe’s finance minister, in a Jan. 20 interview. “We continue to acquire more PPE, we never say we have sufficient, we are doing OK.
Prevention is the best medicine.”
Out of Reach
Private hospitals are better equipped, but out of reach for the vast majority of Zimbabweans. The cost of admission varies between $2,500 and $5,000, according to Norman Matara, the secretary general of the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights. A teacher earns the equivalent of $222 a month.
While Zimbabwe’s elite have often traveled outside the country for medical care, hospitals are under strain in most countries now and don’t have room. Sibusiso Moyo, the country’s foreign minister and former army general who was the face of a 2017 coup, died of Covid-19 this week as did Transport Minister Joel Matiza. Agriculture Minister Perrance Shiri died of the disease in August.
The Zimbabwe Independent reported on Jan 22 that a number of cabinet ministers, senior government officials and businessmen have the disease, citing unidentified people.
Kuda Musasiwa, the founder of Fresh In A Box, a Harare-based company that sells groceries online, was hospitalized for two weeks at a private facility after contracting the coronavirus.
“It was mighty difficult to get a bed for him because of the congestion caused by too many Covid-19 patients,” his father, Roy Musasiwa, said in an interview. “After he managed to get a bed and a ventilator, it was a big relief because we were in a touch-and-go situation.”
The bill for his two-week stay, including 10 days on a ventilator, amounted to $14,000. Discharged from hospital on Jan. 17, Musasiwa said his son’s major concern after regaining consciousness, “was to see so many people dying.”
Desperate citizens, including human rights activist Sithabile Dewah, have turned to social media for help in finding hospitals for Covid-19 patients.
Oxygen demand is soaring as people stockpile in case they require hospitalization, said Unigas, a local health-care company. Some have turned to buying $2,200 concentrators, which produce an oxygen-enriched gas by purging atmospheric air of other elements. The government on Jan. 13 issued a tender for oxygen supply.
When Killer Zivhu, a former ruling party lawmaker, said on Twitter earlier this month that people must buy their own ventilators, he enraged citizens who already have to source everything from water to electricity themselves because government services have collapsed. His post has since been deleted.
Mixed messages from government have added to the panic.
Deputy Health Minister John Mangwiro told reporters on Jan. 6 that “a decision to leave home is a life or death decision.”
Nine days later, Health Minister and Deputy President Constantino Chiwenga said reports of overwhelmed hospitals were an “exaggeration” and “Zimbabwe’s public and private health institutions still have adequate capacity to offer health services to all patients.”
But the experience of Nyasha Matsika, the general manager for operations at Zimbabwe’s biggest funeral services company, Doves Holdings, tells a different story.
Doves had to recall its staff from their Christmas holiday to produce more caskets and coffins as the number of daily funerals tripled to 21 at its main branch in Harare. At the beginning of the year, it was confident that stocks would last until April.
Unable to bury loved ones in the usual custom as lockdown regulations restrict funeral gatherings to just 30 people and burials have to be conducted within 24 hours, Matsika said families are hiring luxury hearses such as the Mercedes Pilato to ferry the corpses of relatives.
“The funerals being carried out are not normal,” he said. Now “it’s the only fitting sendoff for their loved ones,” he said.