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Hopewell Chin’ono – Doctors strike exposes how political elites are disconnected from our reality

By Hopewell Chin’ono

In May of 2007 I flew back from Britain where I had been reading Documentary Practice on a British government scholarship. 

Hopewell Chin'ono
Hopewell Chin’ono

I wanted to make a documentary film on Mental Illness because I felt that it was a subject we knew very little about, and yet almost every family has its own mental illness story to tell.

A friend who is a doctor convinced me to make a documentary film on HIV and Aids instead, she argued that it was the most immediate health care issue in the country.

She reasoned that it also affected every family and that it also had stigma issues just like mental illness. I agreed to change my subject for the documentary film to HIV and Aids, but thankfully, I revisited the mental illness idea last year and have just finished making the film.

As I researched for the HIV and AIDS film, I was introduced to Professor Rati Ndhlovu who ran the Opportunistic Infections clinic at Parirenyatwa hospital, she is now the deputy dean at the UZ medical school.

The introduction was done by the now late paediatrician, Dr Isdore Pazvakavambwa whom I had met in England the previous year through a friend, Dr Tendai Maboreke who is now back home and is a partner at Lancet Laboratories.

I got down to work filming two patients, one who was on antiretroviral drugs and the other who was condemned to die because the antiretroviral drugs she needed to stay alive were beyond her reach.

I saw the immediacy of both pain and commitment in the doctors that I worked with on the film.
Some would use public transport (kombis) to come to Parirenyatwa hospital to see their patients.

Some of these doctors were victims of the criminality that takes place at government hospitals.
Government would provide fuel for doctors and the Hospital superintendents or clinical directors would divert it for their own person use.

These doctors earned very little, I was paying my housekeeper more than what they were earning but they soldiered on regardless.

I would sit down for ours with Professor Ndhlovu discussing the state of the Zimbabwean Health Delivery system and at times she would be so upset that I could see tears brewing in her eyes. In most cases, I would know that it was time to leave her office. She soldiered on regardless of the difficulties. 

She represents the breed of Zimbabwean doctors trained in the West who didn’t have to come back but they did come back because of what they believed to be a national call to serve their people.

These are the frontline soldiers working so hard to keep us alive on a very thin budget and also training new doctors and yet they receive very little support from the top.

We have had embarrassing and yet tragic situations where Harare residents were dying from cholera and yet the Harare City Council Health Director was taking home a salary of US$35000 a month.
More than what the British Prime Minister and American president earn.

These people are not at all embarrassed to turn to donor agencies for something as simple as boreholes for clean water.

Nothing is more important to a human being than their health. It is literally a matter of life and death.
Falling sick in Zimbabwe is not an easy experience and it is not something I would wish on my worst enemy if ever there was one.

You must have money if you are going to get good health care in Zimbabwe or alternatively you will be spending hours on end at government hospitals with very little to offer due to years of underfunding, neglect and clueless leadership.

The recent strikes by medical doctors have brought to fore the rot in the health delivery system of our country. Government officials are paid US$5000 per diems when they travel out of the country and yet the same amount would pay the salaries of ten doctors.

That is how disconnected out political elites are to our own reality. This is the failure on our authorities to understand the relatedness of things. Government officials are given two, three or even four cars per one person and yet rural hospitals have NO working ambulances.

The Premier Service Medical Aid Society (PSMAS) which is mostly subscribed to by civil servants was looted by Cuthbert Dube and government officials who are still serving in today’s government and yet there was NO remedial action.

Public Relations managers were getting paid US$50000 a month at PSMAS and the CEO Cuthbert Dube was getting paid in excess of US$300000 a month and yet the very doctor who keeps us alive is getting paid US$400.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is ridiculous and this tragic failure shouldn’t be allowed in a country which claims to have the highest literacy in the continent. These looters are the same people who are making it difficult for any progress to take place because they are found everywhere in government.

Cuthbert Dube and his surrogates got away scot free because the former President was a direct beneficiary of this looting at PSMAS. Government officials including the current health minister Dr David Parirenyatwa were caught up in Money scandals at PSMAS.

David Parirenyatwa first became minister of health in 2002, before that he was deputy minister of health to Timothy Stamps. Shouldn’t we be having a new pair of hands at that ministry to bring new ideas. Do we needs administrative leadership or we need visionary leadership? What new thing can the current minister envisage which he couldn’t do for 18 years?

This requires to have term limits to ministerial posts and parliamentary positions. This will help curb being saddled with a cross which we can’t put down.

We need to come back to our senses and realize that these health care institutions are meant to be passed on to future generations the same way they were passed on to us when they were in good order. We also need to understand that these underpaid medical doctors are the difference between our living and our dying.

At least for those who can’t afford to go to Singapore or South Africa for health care. 

We have a terrible situation where the political elites rely on foreign health hospitals and doctors for their medical care, so they never get to encounter the misery that awaits ordinary people at our public hospitals.

The millions of dollars spent by Robert Mugabe getting treatment at Gleneagles Hospital in Singapore could have been deployed to good use here in Zimbabwe. 

But alas, he saw and still sees nothing wrong with spending millions of tax dollars helping build foreign medical services whilst what we have at home crumbles!

The political elite never get to hear these stories of our underpaid health workers and they never get to be subjected to the human indignities of waiting for 6 hours before you can get treatment.

This is a cross partisan political elite problem because during the GNU period, politicians from all the parties in government never sought treatment at government hospitals. They all went to South Africa or the Avenues hospital when the need arose to get health care.

This lack of proximity to the theatre where the health delivery system problems are festering is the reason why the rot will continue unabated.

People continue to die whilst waiting to be seen by doctors and nurses at government hospitals.
I was filming at a government hospital last year when a nurse took out her own money to pay for a patient’s medication, she simply carried on with tears running down.

That is the state of our health care system, broken and not fit for purpose. It needs immediate intervention, without that, there is no end to the humiliating experiences felt by both the patient and the health care givers like nurses and doctors.

I am not sure if the Hippocratic Oath that was penned about 2500 years ago will be enough to keep the doctors going, one hopes that their needs can be met and that someone will remember that health care needs to be funded appropriately.

This needs immediate action otherwise we will continue losing lives needlessly and also losing our doctors to countries that have a better understanding of what healthcare really means.

Perhaps when public officials and the political elite are compelled to use public hospitals, those haunting cries from women and children on the verge of death will reawaken their moral consciousness.

Hopewell Chin’ono is an award winning Zimbabwean journalist and documentary filmmaker. He is a CNN African journalist of the year and Harvard University Nieman Fellow. His next film, State of Mind looking at mental illness in Zimbabwe is coming out in March. He can be contacted on [email protected] or on twitter @daddyhope