By Judith Sibanda
Incessant electricity cuts have crippled operations at Nkayi District Hospital in Matabeleland North with the institution now struggling to operate facilities such as the mortuary and maternity ward, investigations have revealed.
So bad is the situation that villagers have to bury bodies of their relatives that die at the hospital in an advanced state of decomposition because the mortuary is not working most of the time.
The hospital is also said to be witnessing a high number of unnecessary deaths because of the electricity problems that make it impossible to carry out life-saving procedures for accident victims and other emergencies.
Patients in critical condition are taken to hospitals in Bulawayo about 168 kilometres away because of the power cuts, but most of the time the ambulance is not available.
Seventy-one-year-old Amos Dube from Sihlengeni Village under Chief Madliwa recounted a harrowing experience of how they struggled to bury his wife recently after her body decomposed while being kept at the hospital mortuary.
Dube said his wife’s body could not fit into the coffin they took to the hospital because it was decomposing, and they had to ask for more time to reconfigure the coffin.
She had died of asthma complications on October 27 and her body was taken to the hospital mortuary while the family waited for the deceased’s relatives to arrive for the funeral.
“They told us on the day we took her body to the mortuary that there was a problem of electricity cuts,” Dube told CITE.
“We were advised that the body cannot be kept at the mortuary for too long, but we had no choice because some of our children and relatives were away.”
Dube’s family returned to collect his wife’s body after three days with a handmade coffin, but it turned out to be too small as the “corpse had doubled in size” because it was in an advanced state of decomposition.
“We had made the coffin using material from our wardrobe and this meant we had to look for more material to extend it,” he said.
“Eventually we had to squeeze the body into the coffin. It was not dignified.”
Thabani Moyo, the Nkayi District Hospital medical officer, said the electricity cuts were also affecting operations at the maternity ward, outpatients, administration and radiography departments.
“We have tried before to negotiate with them to exclude the hospital from the load shedding schedule, but that has always hit a snug as they argue that the hospital is equipped with solar panels that were mounted some few years back to service the maternity, mortuary, wards and theatre department but the challenge is that they are dysfunctional as well.”
Moyo said the hospital that services 158 villagers in 29 wards was struggling to handle emergencies such as victims of road accidents, natural disasters and snake bites as well as labour complications.
“We are not able to handle any emergencies because of various factors that range from the hospital’s lack of resources,” he said.
“For instance, the district does not have a properly equipped theatre to conduct surgical operations.
The hospital administration was recently forced to buy four rechargeable lights to enable nurses to attend to emergencies when there are power cuts, but the intervention is not enough.
“We recently managed to procure four rechargeable torches that they use at night because we hardly have electricity even during the night shifts, but these are only for the nurses on duty to use within their wards,” Moyo added.
“This means that patients and breastfeeding mothers have to find their own ways of lighting during that period.
“Our solar system, which was installed to cover these critical areas has been having issues over the past years because at first, it used to fail to automatically take off after an electricity blackout and now the situation has been worsened by the fact that those batteries are no longer able to go for even an hour.
“So, this means that critical areas such as the mortuary, theatre, admission wards will be out of service most of the time and the patients, their relatives and our nursing staff have experienced the worst under such circumstances.”
Relatives of Themba Ncube from Menda village, who died after he fell into a 20-metre well he was digging, believe he would still be alive if the hospital had given him proper care.
Ncube died at the hospital a day after sustaining multiple fractures and a spinal cord injury as well as head injuries because there was no ambulance to ferry him to Bulawayo.
“He died in October after the rope broke and it took us about three hours to rescue him because of the depth of the well that he had been contracted to do,” said one of his relatives, who requested anonymity.
“What complicated his chances of survival at the hospital was that the ambulance had a breakdown.
Fungai Sithole from Citizen Health Watch, a civil society organisation advocating for equal access to health services, said the situation at Nkayi Hospital was untenable.
“What has worsened their plight even more is the government’s total neglect of critical illnesses ravaging the country in favour of Covid-19 and people are dying with little help in sight,” Sithole said.
Itai Rusike, the executive director of the Community Working Group on Health (CWGH), said the upsurge in chronic illnesses and the advent of Covid-19 had put pressure on a health delivery system already weakened by overdependency on donors, intermittent strikes by doctors and nurses and minimal investment from the government.
He said Zimbabwe’s national budget in the past has seen very little money being allocated towards health and relied on donors, hence the problems in institutions such as Nkayi District Hospital.
“This left the country more vulnerable and exposed to disease outbreaks,” he said.
Last year, Zimbabwe’s budget allocation for health was US$4.80 per capita, almost 90% lower than the US$36 advised by the World Health Organisation, leaving many public health facilities without medicines.
The inadequate budgetary support has also been blamed for the brain drain in the health sector with doctors and nurses leaving for better paying jobs in other countries.
“This is why we are witnessing more and more numbers of malaria deaths and maternal deaths alongside rising HIV and Tuberculosis cases,” Rusike said.
Matabeleland North provincial medical director Admire Kuretu said they were addressing the electricity problems at the hospital by pushing for an upgrade of the solar system.
“So, we have been pushing the head office to connect the other departments like wards, the mortuary, health information, the administration block and X-ray departments.
“I hope it will be soon, but they haven’t given us a date yet.”
Kuretu said the installations have already begun for St Lukes Hospital in Lupane before being rolled out to other referral institutions and clinics in the province.
On Tuesday, Zimbabwe Electricity Distribution Company said it was extending loadshedding hours significantly because of maintaining work at the Kariba Power Station that has seen three units being offline.