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Editor’s Memo

Back to Stone Age?

WHEN Unicef last week donated an ox-drawn ambulance to the Ministry of Health, it did not know that the good gesture to help rural communities would become a hot political subject drawing into its

vortex the so-called apartheid press and Information permanent secretary George Charamba.

The seemingly innocuous donation to transport maternity patients to rural health centres was seized on by the international media which pointed out that Zimbabwe was sliding backwards. One paper, in an overzealous metaphor, said the country had regressed to the Stone Age.

The response from the hypersensitive government information minders was predictable.

Charamba told us that there was nothing amiss about an emergency case being transported to a hospital in a four-wheeler drawn by two oxen. The same concept was being employed with mobile libraries. We were reminded that Zimbabwe remained a leader on the continent and a noted contributor to global health delivery.

“No amount of calumnies will take that spectacular record away from her,” Charamba bragged.

Indeed, no amount of subterfuge can disguise the fact that Zimbabwe is sliding backwards – not to the Stone Age but into poverty, deprivation and sickness. That is the spectacular record.

In a release announcing the donation of nine 10km/h emergency vehicles, Unicef chief of Health, Nutrition and Environment Dr Juan Ortiz, made this observation: “The gains made over the last 20 years to address maternal mortality, especially to provide emergency obstetric care services, are at risk of being lost.

“We know that most of the complications related to childbirth are preventable if obstetric services are available, especially in remote areas. Collectively, we must work together to ensure that all women have their right to a safe pregnancy and delivery guaranteed,” he said.

“In many rural communities, the average 10-kilometre walk to the nearest health facility is too far for a pregnant woman, or a woman already in labour.”

The nine ox-drawn ambulances stem from an idea initiated by the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare and based on the commonly used scotch-carts for rural transport.

The gains which Zimbabwe has made over the past 20 years are definitely being lost. A colleague confided to me this week that at Masase Hospital in his rural Mberengwa home just before Independence in 1980 a small plane used to fly emergency cases twice weekly to Mnene Mission about 60km away, which was the referral centre in the area. That plane service ceased years ago. Ambulances have become a luxury at most rural health centres. Mberengwa is one of the districts that have moved from a plane to an ox-drawn ambulance.

That would be a more accurate metaphor for Zimbabwe’s decline! There are other more poignant signals to demonstrate that there is no more lustre in the once impressive record of government service delivery.

The Human Development Report for 2003 notes that in 1995, 57% of Zimbabweans could be classified as poor. That figure rose to 69% in 2002.

Life expectancy has declined from 51,8 years in 1995 to the current conservative estimate of 33 years. Between 1995 and 2001 the country experienced a 43% decline in access to healthcare. Infant mortality increased from 40 to 65 per 1 000 live births in the period 1995 to 2000, while maternal deaths have risen from 283 per 100 000 live births between 1984 and 1994 to 695 in 2000. Human development experts say there was no improvement in all these indicators in 2003.

There are other indicators which do not need scientific research but which help to demonstrate that there is nothing calumnious about stating that Zimbabweans are not getting healthier. Doctors, nurses and other health technicians have fled state-induced poverty or political meddling in droves. Specialist physicians are fast becoming a rare species. The government does not have enough funds to procure medicines, equipment and vehicles to support the health sector. But it continues to spend on luxury vehicles.

In the capital Harare, residents in Tafara and Mabvuku have resorted to digging shallow wells, which they share with their pets for drinking water.

The city’s authorities cannot supply clean potable water, something residents never experienced even during the 1992 drought.

It’s dinner by candle light for half the capital’s residents. Nothing romantic here. The electricity company Zesa cannot generate enough power and imports are also in short supply. The deforestation around Warren Hills as residents look for a substitute to Zesa power is loud testimony to the government’s spectacular record of failure.

While that may not justify assertions that we are sliding into the Stone Age, we are certainly not progressing, especially in the agricultural sector. At one once highly mechanised farm now run by a High Court judge, tractors have been replaced by ox-drawn ploughs. Wheat is hand-planted and the ripened crop is harvested with sickles instead of combine harvesters.

But that is not surprising. Remember the jingle: Mombe mbiri nemadhongi mashanu sevenza nhamo ichauya.

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