HomeOpinion & AnalysisFeature: Zim healthcare bleeds amid mass nurse exodus

Feature: Zim healthcare bleeds amid mass nurse exodus

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Virginia Mutsamwira said she treated four times the number of patients she should ideally handle at a council  clinic in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe.

“It is tiring, the nurse-patient ratio is really bad,” she said, throwing herself onto a brown sofa at her house in Cold Comfort after a 12-hour shift.

“It is frustrating, because you cannot offer quality care.”

The 52-year-old senior nurse is skilled, experienced and educated. Yet her monthly salary of US$200 barely covers her basics.

To make ends meet for her family of eight, she runs a small grocery shop outside her home, where she also rears chickens and rabbits for sale.

After work, before she even takes off her blue uniform, she feeds the chickens.

She is joining the exodus of healthcare workers emigrating from Zimbabwe in her case, “to secure my retirement.”

Official figures show that last year alone Zimbabwe lost nearly 1 800 nurses, mainly to Britain. That is more than 10% of all the nurses working in public hospitals.

Mutsamwira has already done her international english language test, required to get a visa to the United Kingdom, where salaries are around 10 times higher than in Zimbabwe.

The outflow of nursing staff is stripping the country of desperately-needed skills.

“We are always overwhelmed because many nurses are leaving, said Josephine Marare, 33, who works at one of the country’s largest public hospitals, Sally Mugabe Central Hospital.

Under-equipped facilities only worsen morale. “Imagine working in a hospital where there are no bandages, no water, no basic drugs like painkillers,” she said.

“I am just so frustrated. If I get money to get a visa, I will join the others who are leaving.”

The migration has spurred demand for passports, with people queueing before dawn to apply for travel documents in Harare.

Won a lottery

Zimbabwe’s healthcare facilities have been crumbling for more than a decade, tracking the downward spiral of the economy.

“The main driving factor is poor remuneration,” said Simbarashe Tafirenyika, president of the Zimbabwe Urban and Rural Council Nurses Workers Union, explaining the nurses’ exodus.

Zimbabwe Urban and Rural Council Nurses Workers Union president Simbarashe Tafirenyika

“They need to pay school fees, put food on the table. If anyone gets an opportunity, they are going.”

It is so desperate that many highly qualified nurses opt for junior roles abroad because these pay better.

The Health Service Board, which grades and appoints government health workers, admits the mass exodus of nurses has had an effect.

Under a programme aimed at filling staffing gaps, retired nurses are being re-hired while training is being expanded.

“Losing experienced workers is always a challenge,” Health Services Board spokesman Livingstone Mashange said.

The board’s website opens with a picture of smiling nurses leaping joyfully and a bold “we are hiring” message.

Like other rich countries, Britain has a long tradition of recruiting staff from developing countries to meet the needs of its health service.

But shortages in the UK have shot up, driven by the COVID-19 pandemic and a dramatic drop in nurses recruited from eastern Europe as a result of Brexit.

According a report last June by the Health Foundation think-tank, Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) faced a shortfall of 93 000 staff. Some 42% of them were nurses.

Jason Mutambara, a 45-year-old Zimbabwean father of four, migrated to Britain last year.

He said he had no regrets, his monthly income rocketed to £2 700 (US$3 375), enabling him to easily afford his children’s school fees.

“It was like you have just won a lottery,” he said. “You cannot even think of coming back at the moment.”

Mutambara’s hope is that the Zimbabwean authorities fix the health system to stop the haemorrhage of skills.

“We were trained in Zimbabwe and we owe it to the people of Zimbabwe to continue working for them,” he said. But for now, it appears Britain will be hiring for years to come— France 24

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