On the blog beat
Onai Petra Abote is a Zimbabwean freelance broadcast journalist. Close to her heart are human interest and health stories affecting the daily lives of Zimbabweans. She is also a Radio Netherlands Training Center alumnus. Follow her on Twitter: @onaijournalist.
RNW's Africa Desk is proud to feature as part of its content local bloggers who have a knack for expressing their unique perspectives, independent thoughts and engaging stories. The opinions written here are those of the author and not intended to reflect those of RNW as an institution.
As her husband prepares to undergo surgery, our blogger reflects on Zimbabwe’s health care system. And she doesn’t like what she sees.
By Onai Petra Abote, Harare
It’s February and my husband is on his way back to our office from a press conference. He gets into a taxi. It's stopped at a red light and a kombi rams into the taxi head-on. This in itself is no big surprise – police operations endeavouring to control these public transport operators are a recent source of mayhem in Harare – but you can imagine the horror of hearing my husband is in a car accident.
To put me at ease, a family friend who calls says my husband suffered “minor injuries”: just a dislocated arm. This was not so. For months now, he has been walking around with a broken left humerus. Because the fracture is close to the shoulder, he requires surgery.
A Harare-based government hospital said the medical fees, covering surgery and admission, would amount to US$ 2,150; a private clinic quoted us US$ 3,190 for the same service. If you don’t have medical insurance in Zimbabwe, method of payment is cash. There is no room for negotiation of terms.
Now, operating our own business, a TV and audio production company, in the Zimbabwean economy is not easy. We’ve been surviving hand to mouth and can barely pay bills; this has resulted in our not having any medical insurance. To make matters worse, neither the taxi nor the kombi had any insurance. To this day, they have failed to contribute anything towards my husband’s injury.
But the sorry state of affordable medical treatment in Zimbabwe doesn’t only affect people who fall victim to unforeseen circumstances.
Not long ago, my pregnant friend Debra stops by. To my surprise, she arrives at my house with a small travel bag. Upon enquiring what’s inside, I see a small blanket and a warm tracksuit. Turns out, she had left her house at 4 a.m. to stand in a queue that would enable her to access prenatal care at the provincial hospital. Why did she leave so early, I wonder. She tells me that on any one day the nursing staff gives away ten maternal and neonatal health record cards. This document is what she’ll need to show for all her upcoming prenatal visits. Yet once the nursing staff have given out ten cards, they will stop issuing them and turn to other maternity cases, such as check-ups.
Although the government said they scrapped maternity fees at all government institutions, some clinics still charge consultation fees. Others require expectant mothers to come in with their own cotton wool and methylated spirit. In some reports, pregnant women have had to bring along a 25-litre container of water and candles; hospitals are not immune to water cuts and power outages have become somewhat of a norm in Zimbabwe.
It was Debra’s third attempt at this escapade. This time she was lucky enough to get the card. She was also fortunate to have ridden in a taxi and to have warm clothes and juice on hand. But what of that woman barely surviving? The expectant mother , who cannot afford the private clinics and hospitals, who will have to walk for over an hour to the hospital only to be that twelfth woman who is turned away?
Never-ending waiting lists
Debra’s and my husband’s experiences are just a couple personal observations in the space of three months. I have heard of many cancer patients who spend months on end on a waiting list to undergo chemotherapy. Others do not live to see this day. They die in the waiting.
This is what Zimbabweans must deal with when it comes to their health and well-being. The country’s political uncertainty and unemployment rate of over 80 percent does not make the situation any better. It is no wonder thousands flee the country in search of greener pastures. Theirs is a quest to live a better life. But, to me, a better life simply means going to work, earning enough to send the children to school, being able to afford to pay all bills, including health insurance, and saving. As each day passes, the average Zimbabwean struggles – and often fails – to achieve this.
As we now prepare for my husband’s surgery, I sincerely wouldn’t wish what we have gone through on anyone. And I hope Zimbabwe’s health service system improves…soon.