Deepening crisis affects health care

The announcement this week by Shangani Hospital in Matabeleland South that it would no longer admit patients, because it ran out of food a fortnight ago, is further evidence of Zimbabwe's deepening economic and humanitarian crises.

The hospital, situated in a former commercial farming area, serves an estimated 12,500 newly resettled families. A senior hospital official, who refused to be named, said the hospital had not been able to admit patients because the institution ran out of staple maize meal and other foods two weeks ago.

"We have not been able to admit any patients, even the critically ill and pregnant women, because of the worsening food situation. The word we got from the district administrator in Filabusi [about 80 km southeast of the country's second city, Bulawayo,] is that there is no grain at the Grain Marketing Board (GMB) depot. So we have been forced to turn our patients back to their homes or refer them to hospitals in Bulawayo and Gweru [the provincial capital]," the official told IRIN.

The district administrator is also the chairman of the district food taskforce, a body charged with ensuring steady and adequate food supplies to government institutions like hospitals, prisons, orphanages and boarding schools.

Operations at the hospital had been previously compromised as it has "been operating without an ambulance for almost two years now, so we are unable to attend to critical cases that occur in the remote parts of the district," the official added.

Dumisani Ncube, the Matabeleland South province administrator and provincial food taskforce chairman, described the state of affairs at Shangani hospital as "appalling".

"I have been told about the precarious food situation in Shangani. I can confirm that the hospital has been without food for the past two weeks now. However, I have no further details because I am yet to receive a full report from food taskforce members who went there to study the situation and make recommendations. However, since this is an emergency, we will dispatch food to the hospital while we find out why the situation was allowed to become this bad," said Ncube.

He added it was government policy that all hospitals, prisons, orphanages and other caregiving institutions were classified as priority areas in terms of access to food supplied by the GMB. "I am actually surprised that the hospital has been without food for two weeks when we have people on the ground, in addition to hospital management. We will have to launch a full investigation into this," he said.

Meanwhile, the Bulawayo City Council's directorate of health services announced this week that 20 health clinics, as well as a referral hospital it runs, had been severely affected by the exodus of qualified health staff.

The director of health services, Rita Dlodlo, told IRIN the institutions were operating with only half the required staff complement. As staff continue to leave for greener pastures in South Africa, Botswana, Europe and the Americas.

"The situation at council clinics is critical, as the health department is badly understaffed. The calibre of staff leaving includes nurses, health directors, pharmacists and other specialists, who are very difficult to replace because of the national problem of brain drain. We are operating with only 50 percent of ideal staff complement because of that," said Dlodlo.

She reported that a total of 90 staffers had resigned from council services, while 14 retired and some simply absconded between January and September.

The city council operates 19 clinics and one referral hospital, which specialises in life-threatening illnesses like tuberculosis. The brain drain affecting the council clinics may make access to health services more difficult for the majority of the city's residents, who have often relied on the more affordable medical service rates charged by the council.

The health sector in Zimbabwe has been hardest hit by the country's economic meltdown. Which has resulted in a failure to retain staff because of low rates of pay and a lack of basic medical equipment, due to breakdowns and foreign currency shortages.