By Obey Manayiti, Nunurai Jena and Silas Nkala
Mavis Chimbe fought back tears as she narrated how her sister died of neglect at Chinhoyi District Hospital after nurses went on strike last week demanding better working conditions.
Chimbe’s sister, Lea, sent an SOS to her family in Banket from her hospital bed saying she needed medication, but did not get the help in time to save her life.
“My sister had sent word that I should come and collect her from the hospital as she was not getting medication because of the strike,” said the devastated Chimbe.
“Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it as I found her dead. It is painful.”
She believes more lives have been lost at the hospital since nurses at the institution joined their counterparts in a strike that has paralysed the country’s health delivery system.
The standoff between the government and the health workers escalated last Tuesday when vice-president Constantino Chiwenga summarily dismissed the 15 000 striking nurses.
According to insiders at Chinhoyi hospital, four children died of suspected neglect on Thursday night as the strike by nurses took its toll on patients.
“The death of four children in a single night was not a situation we were used to,” said a mortuary attendant who requested anonymity.
A family from Gunhill in Chinhoyi said their grandfather Langton Chiuswa had died at home after he was turned away without any treatment on Tuesday.
Chinhoyi District Hospital medical superintendent Collet Mawire said they had been forced to close some wards because of the strike, but said he was not aware of any deaths caused by neglect.
“Our nurses joined others on strike and as a result, we had to close some of the wards and remain with what we can manage,” he said
“We were forced to put patients in the maternity ward, but we haven’t recorded deaths related to the strike.”
The dire situation at Chinhoyi hospital was synonymous with the state of affairs at various public health institutions across the country with patients being turned away without any treatment and relatives mourning avoidable deaths.
Elias Sithole* (28) was writhing in pain when The Standard visited his ward at Harare Central Hospital on Friday where his relatives revealed that he had been waiting for surgery for eight days.
Suffering from stomach complications, Sithole was groaning in agony as he rested on the hospital bed surrounded by concerned relatives with nurses conspicuous by their absence.
“We came from Mutare eight days ago because there is an operation that was supposed to have been done on him but because there are no nurses, doctors said we should wait,” Sithole’s brother said.
“We are patiently waiting for the situation to get better. It’s so painful that we have travelled all the way but nothing is happening.
“His condition is deteriorating every day, but we remain hopeful. Our prayer is that the government and nurses find each other soon.”
The few nurses who were on duty at the time told horrifying stories of how they watched helplessly as patients died due to lack of care.
“During the early days of the strike, the situation was so bad. You know the situation with pregnant women about to deliver gets terrible if they are not attended to,” said a student nurse, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Some lost their babies and some developed complications because there was no one to attend to them.”
Martin Mugari believes it was by the grace of God that his wife had a safe delivery after her caesarean operation was delayed by two days.
“The baby finally came on Thursday instead of Tuesday because of the strike,” he said.
“However, things went on well for us. I thank God for that, but there were other people who were unfortunate.
“I really thank God and very soon my wife and child will be discharged.
At Parirenyatwa Hospital, the situation remained dire yesterday as wards remained closed despite claims by the government that it was hiring unemployed and retired nurses to replace the 15 000 fired last Tuesday.
Soldiers could be seen carrying out nurse duties at the country’s major referral hospital.
Meanwhile, the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) said the impasse between the government and the striking nurses had left patients exposed.
ZHRC chairperson Elasto Mugwadi said they had received reports that some patients were dying as a result of the strike.
“Our concern, as you know, is the issue of right to life, which is important.
“We received information that some patients ended up dying in hospitals as a result of the strike,” Mugwadi said.
“We are saying irrespective of the rights that people think they are entitled to — which are the rights to good salaries and reasonable terms and conditions for services and demonstrating in terms of Section 59 of the constitution — those rights have to be executed in a reasonable manner.
“Workers have their rights enshrined in the ILO (International Labour Organisation) rules, but they cannot override the right to life.
“Our nurses must have negotiated. There is no harm in going slow. We are saying to our nurses, they should consider the right to life.
“They have been negotiating since 2011 and we don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t have waited.”
Mugwadi said the nurses should have approached the ZHRC for intervention in the same manner the commission intervened during the medical doctors’ strike.
He said the government should also soften its stance to allow for negotiations to end the impasse.
“We are also saying the government should bend down and negotiate with the nurses,” Mugwadi said.
“Doctors need nurses to perform their duties.
“All the parties involved should quickly go to the negotiating table in the interests of the sick patients in hospitals.”
The Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development (Zimcodd) urged the government to reverse the order to fire the striking nurses and return to the negotiating table.
“The decision and action by the government to summarily dismiss nurses is an act of social and economic injustice. The demands by the nurses are genuine and reasonable,” Zimcodd said in a statement.
“Nurses are earning a paltry $284 basic salary [before allowances], which is less than half the poverty datum line estimate, which stands at $600.
“The grievances, which relate to poor and dangerous working conditions, which threaten their health and affect the discharge of their duties, remain unaddressed.
“Zimbabwe is currently facing a health crisis with sporadic cholera outbreaks in various localities.
“In addition to public resources management issues and leadership crisis, the country is also manifesting a policy prioritisation problem.
“The claim of insufficient funds to meet the demands of the civil servants becomes questionable in the face of extravagant spending by the same government.
“The same administration also considered it priority to splash brand new double-cab trucks for traditional chiefs.”
The Community Working Group on Health (CWGH) said recruiting unemployed and retired nurses would put the lives of patients in danger.
“It should be noted that the strike by nurses comes before the health sector recovers from the one-month-long job action by doctors, who were also demanding better remuneration, working conditions and the general absence of tools of their trade in health institutions,” CWGH said in a statement.
“CWGH is greatly concerned, not only by the current job action, but by the recurrent nature of the strikes, meaning that the fundamental causes of these strikes are not being tackled adequately.
“We do not need stop-gap measures, but lasting solutions.”
On Friday the Zimbabwe Nurses Association fied an urgent application seeking to stop the government from firing them and hiring new nurses.
*Not real name.
Job boycotts by Zimbabwe’s poorly paid health workers have become a common occurrence over the years and the government has been accused failing to honour agreements to improve the working conditions of nurses and doctors.