On the coronavirus frontline

WILKINS Infectious Diseases Hospital (Wilkins) in Harare, the facility at the centre of the Zimbabwe’s covid-19 response, is facing serious challenges as the health facility is woefully under-resourced in handling the rampaging pandemic.

BY BRIDGET MANANAVIRE

Since the outbreak of the disease, which has killed over 21 000 people, including one in Zimbabwe, and infected nearly half a million people around the world, the government has been portraying a misleading picture of the situation on the ground.

Despite the health sector having been in intensive care for many years now, the government has been claiming it is more than ready to handle the infectious disease, only to be badly exposed when the first two cases surfaced in the course of last week.

What is now clear is that Zimbabwean citizens and health workers are perilously exposed to the respiratory infection.

The Zimbabwe Independent visited Wilkins where the country’s first fatality of covid-19, Zororo Makamba, was recorded on Monday, and witnessed how the hospital facilities and workers have been stretched beyond the limit.

As consistently reported by the Independent in the last month, there was inadequate protective clothing for health workers, medication for the sick and insufficient admission facilities.

The hospital was overwhelmed and unable to cope with the number of people who wanted to get tested, including some who had been in contact with the late broadcaster.

Some had travelled on their own while many more arrived in ambulances, stricken with high fever and exhibiting all the telltale symptoms of covid-19.

Wilkins is the only facility in the capital mandated to collect specimens for Covid-19 testing, which samples are then transferred to the National Health Laboratory Services at Sally Mugabe Hospital, formerly known as Harare Hospital.

However, on Monday, the testing process had to be put on hold for more than three hours after they ran out of swab collectors and specimen bottles.

Swabs are taken from the back of the nose and the throat and put in the specimen bottles, which are then transported to the lab for testing.

Those who had been classified as eligible for the tests could be seen milling around, waiting anxiously for the kits to arrive.

As a result of the shortage, not everyone who turned up to be tested on Monday got their specimen collected.

A rigorous screening process is conducted to determine whether one is a suspected case or not.

At the screening point, the temperature is taken to check for fever, and other symptoms. Information such as travel history and exposure to someone who has tested positive to covid-19 is also recorded.

The visit on Monday showed just how ill-prepared Zimbabwe is as a nation.

Protective face masks that were being handed out to people as they waited to get screened and tested also ran out.

Visibly tired healthcare workers had to push themselves to work into the night so as to clear the people who had waited for hours to get screened and tested.

The Independent has in past weeks been reporting on the shortage of staff at the infectious diseases hospital, a situation that has not changed.

People ended up using torchlights on their cellphones to enable the health workers to see what they were doing since the testes were being conducted in the open.

At about 6pm, two ambulances arrived several minutes apart with patients hoping to be tested for covid-19. They were, however, turned away and referred instead to Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals after Wilkins Hospital ran out of admission beds.

One of the patients, an employee at a Chinese-owned factory, recorded a body temperature of over 38 degrees Celsius, much higher than the acceptable human body temperature of between 36 and 37 degrees Celsius.

On Tuesday, the pressure increased with the arrival of people from the Office of the President and Cabinet, where Makamba visited a few days before his death, also seeking to be tested.

The facility was strained to the limit.

The testing process is slow while limitations were also exposed at the lab. Officials revealed that they could test only 15 specimens collected on Tuesday.

With a high number of people camping at Wilkins, the fact that the institution does not have proper ablution facilities for the public was also revealed.

Makamba’s death exposed the country’s lack of preparedness as his family accused the government of causing the 30-year-old’s death through negligence.

In a statement this week, his elder brother Tawanda Makamba said the family had been disappointed by government’s lies on the country’s preparedness.

He said his brother almost walked out of hospital in frustration after realising he was not getting any medical attention. The hospital failed to provide Makamba with medication as well as a ventilator to help with his breathing. Tawanda further revealed that there were no electricity sockets in the isolation unit to power the ventilator.

He said all they got from government including President Emmerson Mnangagwa, his wife Auxillia and Health minister Obadiah Moyo were empty promises.

The family was even asked to source a ventilator for US$120 000, which they would then later donate to the hospital.

Tawanda also said that his brother was just left to die as the staff could not attend to him as frequently as he needed care.

In private briefings, workers at Wilkins said they were gravely concerned by the shortage of protective clothing, which has left them exposed to the infectious virus. They also admitted that Makamba did not get the best care.

“We didn’t have enough space suits, gloves or plastic shoes, masks and protective goggles. That’s the reality on the ground and that’s why he did not get the best attention,” a worker at the hospital said.

“So we try and minimise our interaction with patients. We do attend to them during meals or when the doctor needs to attend to them.”

The Chinese embassy is renovating the hospital so that they can create an intensive care unit (ICU) but it is still a work in progress, with no idea when it shall be completed.

This week, the Zimbabwe Medical Association (Zima) called on the government to avail personal protective equipment (PPE) to those on the frontline.

“During this difficult period it might be difficult to import these drugs. The profession calls on government to urgently licence local manufacturers to produce these drugs for the local market. Varichem, Caps, Datlabs need to be capacitated to enable them to produce these drugs locally,” Zima secretary-general Sacrifice Chirisa said.

“There is need to ensure oxygen is available at all designated centres.”

Chirisa also advised the government to consider making Parirenyatwa Hospital or Sally Mugabe (formerly Harare Central) Hospital Covid-19 care centres as they have ICU facilities.

The Hospital Doctors Association of Zimbabwe this week also gave notice they are withdrawing their services as they cannot not continue operating without protective clothing.

On Wednesday, nurses and doctors at Parirenyatwa and Sally Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s largest health centres, withdrew from work.

So far, the transmission rate of the virus is 2,4 — meaning 10 people will likely infect 24 people.

Top