My view: Zimbabwe’s health from hero to zero

KC Robert Tapfumaneyi's take on the historical roots of Zimbabwe's failing health system.

By Robert Tapfumaneyi

In what was then Rhodesia, as in all racially segregated societies, locals suffered discrimination at the hands of Ian Smith until the changing of the guard in 1980 brought relief to the black citizens of Zimbabwe.

Social delivery was the rallying call from then Prime Minister Robert Mugabe and the ZANU PF government put its wheels in motion. This saw an unprecedented proliferation of clinics and hospital to the extent that healthcare was taken to the people’s doorstep.

Smith’s government had created huge anomalies in the delivery of healthcare. Lots of children had died of diseases that could have been prevented so ZANU PF began a thrust on child immunization, which brought child deaths to almost zero in the early years of our independence.

Recalling the time before independence, Cletus Mpingo of Mudzi says: “We had never known a doctor here and the few black nurses that had been trained were fast tracked to serve the whites in the city clinics and hospitals; to no go areas for blacks.”

Back then, many black people died of small pox: a disease which, in that day and age, should not have killed anyone.

Masvingo Silas Takaruza says he lost four brothers to small pox: “We were four boys and four girls and, I can tell you it’s painful when I think of it now, I lost three brothers to small pox and two sisters to measles. I was the smallest and survived because the new government then brought clinics to every district and some actually had hospitals. Every province has a hospital we are proud of that.”

Investments, even from foreigners, quadrupled and life expectancy for blacks just two years after independence rose to 65 from a low of 42. Diseases like measles, malaria, chicken pox, whooping cough and polio disappeared overnight.

President Mugabe was directly involved and showed a keen interest in the spreading of healthcare to all corners of the country, which he achieved with distinction.

Early applause from across the globe for investments in education and health started to fade when President Mugabe began what he saw as pro-poor policies that were meant to empower. As soon as the land reform program began donors withheld funding from Zimbabwe and in the early to mid-nineties the health delivery system began to decline.

The West began to hold back and started to vilify Mugabe and his government describing Zimbabwe as a ‘pariah’ state.

Peter Lawkock, permanent secretary of the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), recently revealed some of the shocking details of the country’s health crisis.

“We could not watch as people were exposed to such inhuman treatment, eight women died during delivery while 100 children died everyday because of the social injustice,” Lawkock said.

But many argue that the West created the crisis then came back as knights in shinning amour, the benevolent friends who were now going save Zimbabweans from the precipice. Critics say America and Europe have a vested interest on who rules Zimbabwe and they would sacrifice the health of this beautiful nation for political expedience.

In the last decade-and-a-half, a loss of value in the salaries of medical personnel, coupled with vacancies being created in the West, has expedited the flight of trained doctors and nurses from the country.

The prime minister of Zimbabwe Mr. Morgan Tsvangirai’s first day in office as a government official saw him visiting Harare Hospital, one of Zimbabwe’s biggest referral health institutions, in the country’s capital where he came face to face with corpses lying on the floor and workers using unorthodox means to treat patients because there were neither tools nor medicines for use.

The formation of the inclusive government some three-years- ago has given hope again to locals surviving on less than a dollar a day.

The questions that will remain in many ordinary Zimbabweans’ minds is why our national leaders and the rich shun local medical facilities for foreign ones. We hope that one day they put their heads together and revive government facilities for the benefit of the poor

The donor community has done their part.