‘How will we survive?’: Health woes deepen Zimbabwe COVID-19 fear

Perched comfortably on a makeshift stool, Wilbert Mutaurwa attends to a customer at the corner of a shopping centre in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare.

“Today, I decided to come to work because my church said we should not congregate because of corona[virus],” the 37-year-old airtime vendor said on Sunday, less than two days after health authorities in the country reported the first case of COVID-19, the highly infectious disease caused by the virus.

Since then, two more infections have been confirmed in Harare.

“We will all die because we don’t have proper medical facilities,” Mutaurwa said, citing the dismal state of the healthcare sector in a country plagued by a deepening economic crisis.

Indeed, the threat of a major COVID-19 outbreak could not have come at a worse time for Zimbabwe. Medicines are in short supply and depleted state coffers mean that the government is unable to purchase sufficient supplies for state-run medical facilities.

At the same time, crippling electricity shortages have become the norm, with citizens enduring as much as 17 hours of daily power outages.

The financial crisis, meanwhile, has seen professionals struggle to make ends meet, facing a devastating mix of a rapidly weakening currency (the Zimbabwe dollar is trading at 1:42 against the US dollar); skyrocketing inflation, which in February was measured at 540 percent; and stagnant salaries.

Late in 2019, Hilal Elver, the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food, warned that the country is on the brink of “man-made starvation”, with some eight million people facing food insecurity.

Against this grim background, doctors and nurses last year launched a strike demanding better wages. Medical practitioners want their salaries indexed in US dollars to keep pace with inflation as the Zimbabwe dollar continues to lose value.

Doctors only resumed work in January this year after Zimbabwean telecommunications billionaire Strive Masiyiwa offered to pay salaries of the country’s 2,000 doctors for three months in the local currency if they returned to their duties.

Masiyiwa’s offer did not cover the nurses, who are only reporting for duty twice a week.

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