TALENT Munemero has the look of abject despair as her ailing seven-year-old son Tafadzwa rests his frail body on her shoulders on a small hospital bed.
With deep maternal concern, she constantly puts her hand over the small boy’s forehead and in a low voice whispers to her husband standing before the bed that the boy’s temperature still feels too high, and removes blankets covering him to help lower it.
Trying to hold back her tears but with little success, Munemero says she has been at Chitungwiza Central Hospital’s paediatric section for a week with her anaemic son.
There is a sombre atmosphere in the children’s ward on this Sunday evening. Without much light in the ward and virtual darkness in inner wards with seriously ill children due to an electronic fault, the gloom is palpable.
The silence is occasionally broken by the piercing cries of children, some no doubt in pain. the sight of parents desperately trying to give all the love and care to their little ones knowing fully well that without adequate medical attention this is simply not enough leaves a lump in the throat, no matter how hard one tries to be strong.
Some children with breathing difficulties have oxygen masks over their faces while others are intravenously fed life-sustaining fluids.
A mother can be seen struggling to give her tiny baby medication in a small cup, with a student nurse whose body language suggests she is overwhelmed and tired walks towards her to assist.
The student nurse is one of only two such who sit in the middle of the ward without any supervision from a senior nurse trying to give as much help as they can, as the nurses’ strike over meagre night allowances takes its toll.
“The situation is really bad. There are only a few nurses to attend to the children in the evening,” said Munemero.
“Only those two student nurses sitting over there are available to help, and at times they have to call the few seniors at the maternity wards when the situation gets out of control.”
Munemero said her son’s high temperature had last been checked about three hours ago and she didn’t expect any follow up check soon as the two student nurses were dealing with more than 25 children in the ward.
The attitude of the two nurses is sometimes rude, but Munemero is not surprised as the pressure the nurses are under is extremely stressful.
“You feel so helpless with a sick child all night knowing that there are no experienced nurses due to the strike,”she said.
“In attendance are only student nurses who do not have the experience to deal with emergencies. By the time they rush to get the matron, who knows, it may well be too late. I hope things will get back to normal soon,” she said.
Munemero is one among the thousands who have felt the traumatic effects of the nurses’ strike that started last week and which, from observations, has been particularly hard on children and pregnant women.
After a series of meetings health professionals decided to down their tools in a nationwide strike to force government to respond to demands for a review of their night duty allowances from the “unreasonable” US$3 per month, and also the introduction of a risk allowance.
In a statement the Zimbabwe Nurses Association (Zina) said the US$1,5 million government recently provided to the Health Services Board for health workers allowances was not being fairly distributed.
“Nurses are getting US$44 while others are getting more. We want the night duty allowances and medical allowance to come from the US$1,5 million which is already allocated and not from Treasury,” the association said in a statement.
Those who are said to be taking the bulk of the US$1,5 million are directors in the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare, provincial medical directors and senior health officials whom nurses say do not do the practical nursing work.
When the Zimbabwe Independent visited Harare hospital on Tuesday where the strike started, nurses could be seen milling around the hospital’s restaurant area way before lunch hour, confirming the go-slow during the day which however becomes a full-blown strike during night duty.
Due to the intensity of the strike in the evenings soldiers are called in to assist, but there have been complaints that the soldiers are rude and lack the capacity to deal with the heavy workload.
According to senior hospital sources, since the strike started, three maternal deaths have been recorded, among others, blamed on the tremendous pressure on the skeleton staff.
In addition to the pressure of their work due to staff shortages, nurses have to deal with a severe shortage of resources in carrying out their duties where medical wards carry about 32 beds, special wards have 42 beds and even more at the maternity wards.
“The workload is just too much at the hospitals and very little is given to nurses for the work done as a salary,” said a nurse who requested anonymity.
“You find in most cases just two nurses attending to about 32 or 42 patients in different wards. You are supposed to bath, feed, do vital observations and remove dust from surfaces because it harbours micro-organisms.
“We now joke about the amount of work we have saying what we do every day is ‘military nursing’. We spend a lot of time with the patients and we risk contracting diseases, but there is no risk allowance.”
Because of the pressure of work, nurses fear making mistakes, for instance, injecting drugs on patients via the wrong route.
“As an example, benzathine penicillin is injected through a muscle, but because of pressure of work, one can administer it into the patient intravenously (through a vein) and this can cause a patient to collapse,” a nurse said.
Nurses earn a basic salary of at least US$284 per month and also get US$100 as housing allowance, US$42 for transport and US$116 in uniform allowance.
In a memo dated May 4 to the Harare Hospital chief executive officer Peggy Zvavamwe, sisters-in-charge at the health institution said they had decided to withdraw their services on late night and weekend shifts.
The memo reads: “Due to the industrial action which is ongoing, we have been overwhelmed with work. The ongoing negotiations seem to be taking too long than what we anticipated and seem to be overlooking the issue of sisters-in-charge doing calls.
“According to salary scale dated 05/02/15, sisters-in-charge are supposed to be given US$173 on call allowance but we are not getting it, hence we are now going to be working straight shifts, that is, 7am-4pm and weekend off with immediate effect 04/05/15.”
Due to the strike of nurses and turning away of patients at Harare hospital, Parirenyatwa Hospital — the country’s largest medical centre — has had to deal with a huge influx of patients, putting unsustainable pressure on nurses, doctors and facilities.
A doctor at Parirenyatwa said the situation at Harare hospital must be quickly addressed as it was causing a huge problem at Parirenyatwa Hospital.
“At Parirenyatwa Hospital nurses are not really on strike, but because the other big referral centre, Harare hospital, is turning away patients due to the strike, most patients who need serious overnight monitoring are referred to Parirenyatwa which is now overwhelmed,” said the doctor.
The pressure on Parirenyatwa was plain to see on Monday as several ambulances carrying patients waited for their turn to be attended to at the hospital’s casualty area, while on Tuesday morning pregnant women could be seen lying on the floor in the casualty area due to the influx.
The Health ministry has since launched a probe into the alleged abuse of funds meant for nurses by senior health officials, and payments stopped pending the probe’s outcome. That is however unlikely to appease the nurses who continue to demand nothing short of a reasonable increase in their night duty allowances before returning to work.