As a strike by doctors in Zimbabwe’s public hospitals drags on into an 11th week, citizens around the country are taking to social media to find health-care solutions and organise mobile clinics. Activists and medical professionals worry this could lead to huge health safety problems.

Zimbabwe’s health sector, once regarded as one of the best in Africa, is collapsing. Doctors in public hospitals have been on strike since September 3, the second time in less than a year, to demand salary increases in response to soaring living costs (Zimbabwe’s inflation rate is currently one of the highest in the world).

The government said last month it had doubled doctors’ salaries, but doctors responded that this was inadequate, as it would only increase their monthly salary to around 2,000 Zimbabwe dollars (€118). On November 8, the government fired 211 of the 1,800 doctors on strike.

Doctors and nurses protest over the disappearance of the leader of their union, Dr. Peter Magombeyi, in Harare, Zimbabwe on September 16, 2019. Magombeyi reappeared September 19, after five days during which union members say he was abducted and tortured.

The FRANCE 24 Observers reached out to Health Minister Obadiah Moyo, who did not respond for comment.

Patients are being turned away from hospitals because there are no doctors to treat them. Millions of people lack private health insurance and are unable to afford care in private clinics. In Zimbabwe, children under the age of five receive basic free treatment at public hospitals. Everyone else must pay for their treatment.

In response, citizens have been mobilising to fill the hole in the healthcare system. Since nurses and midwives are also currently on strike, one 72-year-old woman became a local hero after opening up her apartment to help deliver over 100 babies.

This video, published by Human Rights Watch’s Southern Africa Director, shows women giving birth on the floor of an apartment in a suburb outside the capital. Video: Dewa Mavhinga.

'We are now going backwards'

Dr. Norman Matara, a doctor with a private clinic in Harare, is a member of the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association, the union representing the doctors on strike.
 
People cannot afford to go to private clinics because of the economic crisis, so they’re staying home, or they’re seeking unconventional methods of healthcare, like traditional healers. Recently, we’ve witnessed an increase of makeshift maternity homes where babies are being delivered by traditional birth attendants who are not qualified to assist giving childbirth. It’s not legal for people to be practicing medicine in such a way, because they deliver babies in unsterile conditions and put mothers and babies at risk. A common complication is postpartum hemorrhage, or heavy bleeding after delivery. These women don’t have means to address that. We used to have programs to prevent HIV-positive mothers from transmitting that to their children. We are now going backwards in terms of our HIV programs.

'People are dying at home because of preventable illnesses'

Dr. Matara, who also describes himself as a human rights activist, visited Zimbabwe’s largest central hospital, located in Harare, on November 20 and was shocked by the near-total shutdown of health services.
 
“If you look at Parirenyatwa Hospital, which is the biggest central hospital in the country, it’s like a ghost town. There’s no one in the halls. Before, people struggled to get beds at that hospital because of the high flow of patients. You start to think, where are the patients going? They are dying at home, obviously, because of preventable illnesses.”

A video of the now-empty Parirenyatwa Hospital, the largest medical centre in the country, located in Harare, taken November 17 by journalist Hopewell Chin’ono.

'We started receiving messages from citizens asking for assistance'

Wellington Mahohoma is a 37-year-old volunteer and tech entrepreneur who started Citizwean Clinics, mobile health clinics in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city. He has worked with Freeman Chari, a Zimbabwean activist and technology entrepreneur based in the United States, to crowdfund money on GoFundMe and organise assistance to Zimbabweans in recent crises. Earlier this year, Mahohoma helped raise over €96,000 to assist victims of Cyclone Idai.
 
Usually, we use the GoFundMe platform to raise money and find ways to assist on the ground. When the doctors went on strike, we started receiving messages from citizens saying, 'My father or aunt is not feeling well, but there are no doctors in hospitals, could you please assist us?'

Older people and children mostly rely on government hospitals. For a person to visit a private practice, a consultation alone would cost 20 USD (€18), not to mention the cost of the medicine. It sounds insignificant, but a teacher is paid around 50 USD (€45) a month.

People wait at Citizwean Clinics, Wellington Mahohoma's volunteer health clinic, in Bulawayo on November 22. Photo: Wellington Mahohoma.

We have mobile clinics, and we also conduct home visits when people can’t come to the clinics. We only started treating people on Wednesday and, so far, we’ve treated close to 400 people.

We’re relying on around 118 doctors, nurses and pharmacists who are volunteering their services, although more are signing up online and through WhatsApp. We buy the medicine and equipment. After we finish here in Bulawayo, we will possibly move to Harare, but we are also considering going to rural areas, where there’s no help.

People wait outside Citizwean Clinics, Wellington Mahohoma's volunteer health clinic, in Bulawayo on November 22. Photo: Wellington Mahohoma.
 
Right now, I’m on my way with a doctor and a nurse to see a 70-year-old male, who had a stroke and has hypertension. They sent me a message on WhatsApp. We have a number where people can text us and ask for help.

'It’s like trying to stop water leaking from a bucket with your hands'

Dr. Matara explained how he also intervened to help a patient in need through a public call on Twitter.
 
Two days ago, a Zimbabwean journalist tweeted that an elderly lady was seriously ill and didn’t know where to go for healthcare. I responded to that tweet, and the lady and her family came to my private practice, where I attended to her free of charge. However, if you follow that journalist online, you’ll see there was another case where that person unfortunately died. No one intervened.

Journalist Hopewell Chin’ono published this tweet November 20 to find a doctor to cure a sick woman in the absence of public healthcare services.
 
While this kind of citizenship initiative is a noble idea, it is not a permanent or sustainable solution. It’s like trying to stop water leaking from many holes in a bucket with your hands.

The best solution is for the government to address the public health sector, to make sure hospitals are equipped and workers are remunerated; so they can come to work and make a living wage. Yes, we may help one or two citizens now, but we do not have the capacity to cover the whole country.

This article was written by Ariana Mozafari (@arianamozafari).