AN old man, almost bald but for a tuft of grey hair, emerges from a closed door looking dejected.His demeanour is that of a burdened soul and ironically he is carrying a seemingly heavy bag, whose weight is bearing on his bent back.
He wears a threadbare old pair of denims that is oversized and in constant need of rolling up.Eight-three-year-old Murisi Chiwanza fears that the current strike by doctors, which has lasted more than 90 days will result in the death of his wife of 56 years.
Chiwanza’s wife is now the sole occupant of one of the few wards still open to patients at the country’s largest referral medical institution, Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals (Parirenyatwa).
With doctors having gone on strike nearly four months ago, the once busy hospital complex is now almost deserted, manned only by a handful of nurses, some supporting staff and student doctors.
This was the depressing state of affairs on Tuesday, this week.Only patients that come with serious conditions, according to the stringent conditions set by a handful of student doctors, are taken into the wards while the rest are turned away without treatment.
Chiwanza’s wife, who suffered a major stroke last week on Saturday, was deemed critical enough to be allocated a bed in one of the wards.Having been transported from their rural home in Murehwa the following day, she still has not been attended to by a qualified medical doctor.
“We have been together for 56 years and now with this situation, I fear for the worst,” Chiwanza said, as he took a seat by on a rock by the side of a pavement.
He heaved a tired sigh like someone who has slept on three consecutive nights and continued: “She suffered a major stroke on her right side and we are lucky that she has been admitted although she is yet to be examined by a doctor.”
He did not ask for assistance as he suddenly lifted his load and trudged off without saying anything further, leaving the writer to undertake a tour into the main hospital under the cover of someone visiting a sick relative.
I walked towards the entrance door. From there, the whole structure appeared to be monstrously massive; encircling me as if I was the victim of an ambush.
The walk past a series of empty wards, which under normal circumstances are overcrowded with patients, have a depressing feel about it.
One striking feature was the hygiene of the empty passageways, which told the story of how cleaners have had an easy job for the past four months that the doctors have been on strike.
But I was wrong to assume I had freedom of the corridors, for as I negotiated my way around a corner and onto a short flight of stairs, three stern-looking security guards suddenly appeared and ordered me to stop.
They wanted to know why someone who does not work at the hospital was “loitering” in the corridors.After stating that I was lost , they ushered me to the main reception area, which is usually packed with patients.
Less than a dozen people sat hopelessly on the cold metal chairs in the waiting area, which provided the writer with a temporary sanctuary from the prowling security guards.
A few minutes later, a 21-year-old female student doctor, came to announce that only those with emergency cases would be attended to before moving around examining each individual patient using the reference cards.
In the end, none of them fit the bill.“This is what we have been told to do. We can only accept those with serious emergency medical requirements, especially survivors of road traffic accidents and serious ailments like cancer. The rest, we turn away. There is nothing we can do,” said the student doctor, who preferred anonymity.
At that juncture, 65-year-old Pedzisai Nyarongwe emerged from one of the many rooms flanked by her younger sister and daughter who assisted her to walk.
A large cancerous tumor is eating away her face.
They arrived at the hospital on Thursday last week from their rural home in Guruve and by Tuesday, they had not been attended to.
They have been sleeping on the floors at the verandah of one of the hospital buildings and have resorted to begging for food since the hospital cannot provide for patients that have not been admitted.
“We have been here for the past five days and we have just been told to return tomorrow. We are poor people and we do not have anything to eat now. We are begging for food from around the hospital,” her daughter Letwin (24) said.
For admission here, one has to know or be known to someone who works at the medical facility.“My uncle only got admitted because we have a nephew who works as a doctor here, otherwise, we would be in big trouble like the other patients,” a visibly relieved young man who declined to be named said.
A senior registered general nurse said: “I have been working here for many years now and this is the first time I am witnessing a situation like this. Apart from the doctors, there is a mass exodus of nurses who are migrating to other countries. I think over the past year, we have lost almost half the nurses. I am also in the process of sorting my papers so that I can relocate to Australia.”
The country’s second largest referral hospital might have assumed a new name; Sally Mugabe Hospital from Harare Hospital, but apart from the name, nothing is new.
“We are working under terrible conditions here. It is heartbreaking to turn away a patient you can clearly see is struggling but there is nothing we can do now,” a nurse there said.
Apart from the children’s wing, everything else lies deserted.“There are no doctors here except for some of us who are forbidden from participating in industrial actions by our religions. So everything now lies in our hands. Even the maternity ward is turning patients away,” one of the doctors at the hospital said.
Public hospital doctors have been on strike since August this year demanding better salaries and working conditions amid an imploding economy.
Government responded by offering a 70% salary increment, which they flatly turned down. To make matters worse, government then decided to fire all striking doctors. To date, 435 doctors have been fired.
The terrible situation at the country’s two major hospitals is ample testimony that the ongoing standoff between government and doctors has led to the untold suffering of patients and possible loss of life.