This week, like most Zimbabweans, I was beyond devastated to learn seven babies were stillborn in one night at Sally Mugabe Central Hospital, formerly Harare Central Hospital, because their mothers did not get adequate medical care due to a nurses’ strike, as a dispute over working conditions cripples the public health delivery system.
Out of the eight pregnant women who underwent caesarean sections on Monday at the hospital, only one successfully delivered a baby.
Nurses went on strike countrywide last month demanding US dollar salaries, which the government says it cannot afford. The strike has left public hospitals with skeleton staff and doctors and senior nurses overstretched at a time when the country is struggling to deal with spiking Covid-19 infections.
What is distressing is that the stillbirths were preventable.
According to medical doctors at Zimbabwe’s biggest referral hospital, some of the women’s uteruses ruptured because nobody was there to monitor them. Doctors say expecting mothers are also bleeding to death and that 80% of deliveries are stillbirths.
The stillbirths are just a reflection of the state of the country’s public hospitals, which have become a death trap to citizens.
Dr Takudzwa Mudzingwa this week offered us a peek into the state of public health institutions when he shared a heart-wrenching daily experience on his Facebook page.
“The end of every shift is filled with sorrow and depression; you are exhausted by the cries of mothers in pain, mothers dying, the faces of all those dead babies you could have saved only if the system was functional,” he narrated his daily ordeal.
“During that shift you make a list of 20 women with pregnancy emergencies who need caesarean sections. You get to the theatre and find that there are no theatre nurses (they also on strike).
“You get into the theatre and the anaesthetist is told that there is no anaesthetic, no gases, no propofol and no ketamine.”
Dr Mudzingwa said there are not enough beds and they are having to deliver babies in the corridors. Expecting mothers are spending hours sleeping on the benches or cold floor before they are attended to. Smaller clinics, which usually attend to some of the expecting mothers, are closed due to the strike.
Cry my beloved country. The majority of women cannot afford over US$500 being charged by private health institutions for normal delivery and this does not include the thousands being demanded by private doctors.
The health situation in the country is beyond dire. It is not only the babies and expecting mothers that are dying daily but also people with chronic illnesses and also those needing treatment for non-communicable diseases, which include heart attacks and stroke, cancer and chronic respiratory diseases (such as asthma) and diabetes. Even accident victims are being turned away at public hospitals.
In addition to the health crisis being brought about by the nurses’ strike, Zimbabwe’s health institutions have been deteriorating over the years. Needing emergency healthcare is now like being handed down a death sentence in Zimbabwe. Dr Mudzingawa contends that public hospitals were now places where doctors certify dead bodies rather than save lives.
While the nurses’ strike has exacerbated an already existing health crisis in the country, government needs to prioritise the health delivery system. It has to perform its duty to provide the prerequisite tools to allow the medical staff to do their job. It must also provide the necessary support like ensuring that these key service providers are paid a living wage and health institutions are adequately resourced.
Government can start by appointing a substantive minister, permanent secretary and chief executives at the country’s major hospitals.
What is happening at public health institutions only goes to show that health care has never been a priority for government. If it had been, the strike would not have gone on for this long and hospitals would not have become death traps.
Government cannot continue to ignore these problems. For how long should babies, expecting mothers and the general citizenry continue to die unnecessarily before government makes health care a top priority?