Snail’s pace response to Covid-19 pandemic exposes govt failures

THE lethargic and slow response by the government to contain the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 100 000 people globally has once again exposed disastrous governance failures, as highlighted by a dangerous reluctance to adequately fund the health sector.

Kudzai Kuwaza

The virus, which has wreaked havoc worldwide with dire economic, social and political implications, has infected almost two million people worldwide and killed three in Zimbabwe. The Covid-19 scourge, thought to have originated in Wuhan in China, has been devastating, with countries such as the United States, Italy, Spain, United Kingdom and France being among the hardest hit in terms of fatalities.

In Zimbabwe, the outbreak has brutally exposed government’s lack of preparedness, a manifestation of years of grossly underfunding the health sector.
Nothing underlined government’s lack of seriousness to fight the scourge more than the Health ministry’s admission in a High Court case in which the government is being sued by health workers for failing to provide essential materials to treat patients. The ministry revealed it was yet to receive the US$200 million from Treasury needed to purchase material crucial for health workers battling to treat coronavirus patients.

The failure to procure adequate equipment could also result in large numbers of people affected by the coronavirus pandemic failing to get treatment. The government has also failed to acquire, in a timely manner, adequate testing kits and is therefore unable to give a correct national assessment of the spread of Covid-19.

The lack of preparedness is also revealed by the small number of people who have been tested for the virus. The country had managed to test only about 600 people as of April 13. In comparison, Uganda has been testing more than 500 daily while Cameroon launched a nationwide door-to-door Covid-19 testing programme with South Africa testing more than 80 000 people.

This puts into perspective the alarmingly pedestrian pace the country is taking in the fight against the virus despite government officials’ desperation to paint a picture of progress. The chairperson of the inter-ministerial ad hoc committee on Covid-19, Vice-President Kembo Mohadi, this week announced that government has adopted a strategy to test 1 000 people daily for the virus and have set a target of testing 40 000 people by the end of this month. Whether this can be achieved remains to be seen.

The government’s struggle to put in place substantive measures to fight Covid-19 is a damning indictment of government’s failure to adequately fund the health sector over the years, according to business consultant Simon Kayereka.

“Someone once said for every lie that you tell you incur a debt to the truth. The chickens have now come home to roost. Africa has roughly 1,2 billion people which is about 15% of the global population but carries about 27% of the disease burden. It is estimated, while Africa carries this burden, it also has the weakest public health system,” Kayereka said.

“This is why our elites have been running away to other countries for treatment. Zimbabwe in particular has always been an accident waiting to happen. Our health infrastructure is dilapidated. We have failed to maintain our public health institutions hence the proliferation of private hospitals. We have also failed to pay the health personnel adequately, resulting in perennial strikes.

“Add to that, there is hardly any medical equipment and drugs. Main hospitals like Parirenyatwa, Sally Mugabe (formerly Harare Central Hospital) and Mpilo have been operating at below 50% capacity due to incapacitation of health personnel. Where did we go wrong?

“We failed to prioritise the health sector. Inheriting infrastructure is one thing but maintaining it is another. We failed on this score. Training medical personnel is one thing, but retaining them is another. We have suffered from over-reliance on donated drugs, while the larger part of the budget goes to consumption. I could go on and on but now, come Covid-19, we were caught with our pants down.

“Right now we have tested just over 500 people while our neighbour South Africa has tested more than 80 000 people in the same period. Even Uganda is testing more than 500 people daily which is our total in the last three weeks. The blame must be placed squarely on government for years of neglect. The oft-touted Health for All slogan is now silent. Our leaders must now come to their senses and prioritise investment in public hospitals.”

The ceremonies where companies make donations for the fight against Covid-19, in which President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his two deputies, Mohadi, and Constantino Chiwenga, are on hand to receive, have been met with widespread derision and contempt, prompting widespread accusations that government’s main strategy in fighting the scourge is receiving donations.

Although government has taken several steps to contain the virus which include a 21-day national lockdown which began on March 30, a financial package to vulnerable households and the current setting up of additional isolation points and Covid-19 treatment points, the glaring omissions far outweigh what has been achieved so far.

The bitter complaints by the family of the country’s first coronavirus fatality, journalist Zororo Makamba, over the bungling that led to his demise provides startling evidence of government’s dereliction of duty and criminal negligence in fighting the virus.

The desperate state of affairs is reflective of government’s failure to prioritise the health sector, according to analyst and chief executive of non-governmental organisation Habbakuk Trust Dumisani Nkomo.

“Our public health system has been found wanting because we have failed to adequately prioritise healthcare for decades,” Nkomo said.

“Consequently, our health infrastructure is crumbling due to years of under-prioritisation. Lack of adequately equipped isolation centres, testing and data tracking is manifesting itself in this coronavirus conundrum.”

The failure to prioritise the health sector is evidenced by the government’s continued failure to adhere to the Abuja Declaration. The declaration by the African Union in April 2001 states that governments in African countries set aside at least 15% of the budget for the health sector, which the government has never managed to achieve.

With the World Health Organisation warning that the Covid-19 virus could worsen in Africa, it remains to be seen whether government can rise to the occasion to protect lives at risk from the deadly scourge.