As the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic looms large, Zimbabwe’s healthcare system stands on the brink of collapse. Late last year, the first wave claimed the life of Minister Shiri, a prominent figure in the country’s hierarchy. While the first wave had relatively low mortality rates, it exposed the glaring weaknesses in Zimbabwe’s healthcare infrastructure. To assume that the system can endure the impending second wave would be a grave misconception, and here’s why.

Zimbabwe’s healthcare sector has been deteriorating steadily for decades. As far back as 2016, former President Mugabe sought medical treatment in Singapore, where he ultimately passed away. General Chiwenga spent a significant amount of time receiving treatment in Beijing in 2017. Even Mary Chiwenga was planning on seeking medical treatment abroad. All these instances paint a grim picture of Zimbabwe’s healthcare, both public and private. The elites lack trust in their own healthcare system, and with good reason. The system is outdated and massively under-resourced. To question whether it can handle the second wave is to wrongly assume that it was proficient and adequately equipped even before the pandemic hit.

In 2020, Covid-19 infected 2.7 million Africans and claimed over 65,000 lives. It’s essential to note that testing has never been reliable, particularly in Zimbabwe, due to a lack of coordinated, robust national testing. The first wave was marked by low mortality, in part due to underreporting and a lack of transparency from the government.

In addition to a shortage of skilled professionals, healthcare staff, and crumbling infrastructure, the prohibitive costs introduced by the government have reduced the demand for health services. Many are excluded from basic medical care due to their inability to afford it. This exclusion will allow the virus to spread unabated, like a ripple effect. When the crisis reaches its peak in the coming months, both public and private hospitals will be overwhelmed. A friend in Zimbabwe shared a concerning story about the district hospital where three people tested positive for the virus within two days, all of whom had come for unrelated medical issues. They had used public transport, where compliance with masking and sanitizing measures is virtually nonexistent. Unfortunately, these individuals went undetected due to a lack of urgency and contact tracing technology.

Even after testing positive, these individuals were dismissed and forced to use public transport again, spreading the virus to unsuspecting victims who would not be traced for testing or isolation. Certified patients were advised to use untested home remedies, which is alarming, as it compromises the urgency and effectiveness of isolation. Moreover, health officials fail to follow up to ensure compliance with isolation and testing after the required period. Is this issue unique to one district, or is it a nationwide problem? This highlights the fundamental inadequacy of Zimbabwe’s healthcare system, which cannot handle a second wave. Will the ruling Zanu PF leadership buy their own ventilators?

In 2017-2018, a mere 7.7% of the budget was allocated to healthcare, doing little to modernize the sector and exacerbating its incapacity. Hospitals remain ill-equipped to handle a pandemic, with healthcare workers suffering from low motivation and occasional government pressure. Despite claims that 85% of Covid-19 cases require hospitalization, the reality is that the healthcare system is severely incapacitated. There are only three ICU beds and three ventilators for every sixty patients at a major national hospital. One can only imagine the dire situation in smaller regions like Tsholotsho, UMP, or Gwanda, where even basic ICU beds and ventilators may be luxuries.

In addition to demotivated healthcare workers, the lack of medication and equipment means that patients often receive no treatment at all. For example, at the Parirenyatwa Covid-19 unit, healthcare workers volunteer to care for infected patients, but without equipment or medications, patients are left to fend for themselves. There is not even enough equipment for rotations among the few ICU beds and ventilators. This stark reality underscores the fact that even the 15% eligible for hospitalization cannot expect the minimum required medical attention.

Given this grim situation and a lack of evidence to the contrary, only those who blindly support the current government would believe that Zimbabwe’s healthcare system can handle the looming second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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