Doctors priced out

Joylean M Baro on how Zimbabwean doctors on the frontlines of Covid-19 care have been priced out of treatment. 

 Health workers in action at the Mpilo Central Hospital Covid19 Testing laboratory.  Bulawayo, 25 April 2020.  Credit photo : KB Mpofu / ILO
Health workers in action at the Mpilo Central Hospital Covid19 Testing laboratory.
Bulawayo, 25 April 2020. Credit: KB Mpofu / ILO

Doctor Nunguhuru is a resident in a Zimbabwe hospital. When he developed acute kidney injury in August, he could not be admitted to the public hospital where he works because of a shortage of physicians and nurses.

‘The alternative, private clinics needed a Covid-19 certificate upfront. Desperate, I was managed [treated] by colleagues in casualty until I could pass some urine,’ laments Nunguhuru, who uses a Twitter pseudonym for fear of being abducted by state security agents.

In January doctors and nurses ended a strike over pay and working conditions. In late March they were on strike again to protest PPE shortages. Striking medical staff have reported receiving death threats and pressure from suspected state security agents.

Zimbabwe has a growing shortage of medical professionals. In recent years thousands of doctors have repeatedly walked away from their posts on strike, or emigrated. During Covid-19 photos of nurses’ patient gowns as makeshift-PPE went viral. Hungry medics have reportedly dipped into patients’ food rations.

Healthcare infrastructure has also deteriorated and many hospitals lack medicines and equipment, including for laundry. In 2019 there were reports, disputed by the government, that one hospital was now washing bed linen in a river.

Salaries for public-hospital doctors hover around $115 per month according to the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association – Zimbabwe’s Living Wage average is $305. ‘If I get into a diabetic coma or have a stroke on a salary of $115, I will surely die a lonely death because admission into private clinics is $2,000 and a specialist is $100 per day,’ explains Nunguhuru.

#FixOurHealthcareSystem is a social-media campaign started by a junior physician, which has become popular on Twitter across Zimbabwe. Poverty-stricken doctors invite one another to confess humiliating incidences of not being able to afford the very medicines and surgeries they prescribe. The faint hope is to safely catch the attention of Zimbabwe’s feared leaders.

‘I had to go and buy paracetamol from a private pharmacy because the public hospital had run out of stocks,’ posted one doctor. ‘My wife is pregnant, the closest satellite clinic is closed, the next is 10km away and it is registering only eight women per day. The cheapest private clinic charges $100 to register. I am an unemployed doctor for five months. It’s tough for me,’ ZimAfric tweeted.

Another health worker, Drjaytee87, also posted their own story: ‘On the night my daughter was born preterm, gynaecology fees were $400 per visit, $80 for a paediatrician who had to come twice daily because she was preterm, hospital stay for baby [was] $50 per day and $100!’

From 10,700 kilometres away in Melbourne, Australia Thabisa Sibanda, a Zimbabwe-born clinical-trial specialist and senior health researcher acknowledges that this hashtag movement is a safer way for medics in the country to tell their painful stories and highlight barriers to healthcare access in the country.

‘You can’t read these stories and remain with dry eyes.’