A young girl had to have her leg amputated because no antibiotics were available to treat her wounds
The public hospitals of Zimbabwe, once a model for Africa, have become waiting rooms for death.
A doctor at one of the country’s five central hospitals—the biggest and supposedly best equipped health care centres in the country—laid bare the desperate state of the system.
“Patients are dying of things like dehydration—in a hospital,” he said.
Neither the doctor nor his institution can be identified for fear of reprisals. During the interview, held in the back seat of a car, he looked around to check for observers at least a dozen times.
“We no longer have a system. Now it’s beyond any form of help,” he said, citing the example of a young girl admitted after a falling rock crushed her thigh and broke her shin.
“I couldn’t clean the wound except with tap water. She needed surgery but there were no anaesthetic drugs.
“After three days we could operate but by that time gangrene had set in. We had no antibiotics and ended up amputating her leg. She is a 10-year-old girl.” He shook his head sadly.
He listed some of the items his hospital has run out of: penicillin, insulin, painkillers, bandages, hydrogen peroxide, gauze, plaster, X-ray film, sterile gloves, surgical blades and intravenous fluids.
“Most of the staff have left. Some emergencies like appendicitis are no longer emergencies. We have got to the stage where with any condition not deemed life threatening, we are not operating,” he said.
Patients have to wait for hours to see a doctor and must buy all their own medical supplies. If they cannot pay they cannot be treated, he said, pointing out that the first litre of intravenous fluids and a set of equipment to administer it costs Z$1.5million—half a civil servant’s monthly salary.
“Every ward round you do you record ‘patient is severely dehydrated, patient needs fluids, patient can’t afford fluids’. You are literally watching patients die in your hands of correctable illnesses.”
With President Robert Mugabe’s government unable to import supplies because of the collapsing Zimbabwean dollar, the doctor has learned not to respond to the desperate pleas of the sick and their relatives. “I tell them, ‘My hands are tied, I can’t do anything for you’.
“This is how I am now. It hardens the heart, it annihilates hope, it obliterates the whole purpose of coming to work. You can’t easily forgive yourself.”
The doctor has just received a 540 per cent pay rise, to Z$9 million a month, about £30 at black market exchange rates and not enough to live on. “I can’t remember the last time I bought myself an item from a clothing shop,” he said. “Almost everyone tries to do something to get the extra dollar.”
One of his colleagues has resorted to making bootleg CDs, while others use the hospital’s internet access to look for a job abroad, most commonly in South Africa, Australia or New Zealand.
The doctor’s description is a graphic confirmation of a United Nations report last month, which pointed out shortages of essential drugs and intravenous fluids.
Stella Allberry, health spokesman for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, said: “This government wants to pretend everything is wonderful. They are hiding their dead, they are hiding their ill and they are hiding the fact that nothing works.
“People are letting their families die at home rather than trying the hospitals. In our country you are an old man if you are 55.”
The average life expectancy in Zimbabwe is now 37 for men and 34 for women.
Mothers, she added, had told her: “I just want my children to be a bit bigger, then I can die. No one dreams further than that.”
Officials from Zimbabwe’s ministry of health and child welfare could not be reached for comment.