Please spare health institutions from power cuts

Johannes Marisa

THE whole country is now in utter darkness! Power outages are now a menace with some residential areas going for 16 hours without electricity. The gravity of the power outages should worry all sober-minded people because without adequate power, there is no sound development in the country.

Zimbabwe has an installed capacity of about 2 300 megawatts (MW) of electricity, but is currently generating an average of 1 100MW against a peak demand of about 2 000MW. For over a decade, the country’s main energy sources, which include both hydro and thermal power stations in Kariba, Hwange, Munyati, Harare and Bulawayo, have been failing to meet demand. Coal power stations have failed to stand tall due to incessant breakdowns of the obsolete generators.

It is a pity that about 42% of those connected to the national electricity grid are currently enduring gruelling power cuts of more than 12 hours on a daily basis. This is contrary to the country’s vision 2030 development strategy aimed at achieving an empowered and prosperous upper middle-income society by 2030 through sustainable means.

When it comes to attaining Sustainable Development Goals and Africa Agenda 2063 that aim at ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all, Zimbabwe is lagging far behind and delaying its own transition. We have a whole Energy ministry with numerous directors who are superintending over a collapsing energy system, yet they drive the latest vehicles on the market.

Hospitals are languishing in darkness, yet those responsible for power generation are enjoying their holidays in far-away places like Dubai, Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom et cetera.

The health sector is a critical sector that should be given priority as far as issues of power are concerned. One day I came face-to-face with reality when I visited Chiriseri Clinic in Chihota where there is not even a single source of power. The rural health centre used to have a solar-powered system, but the panels were vandalised some years ago. The local transformer was stolen some years back, leaving the place in total darkness.

What this means is all drugs that should maintain the cold chain are seriously affected. Vaccines cannot be administered at the local clinic, thus leaving residents with no option except to travel to distant health centres like Mahusekwa District Hospital to receive simple vaccines like BCG, measles, polio, tetanus et cetera for children.

Does the Energy minister Zhemu Soda appreciate the importance of energy in healthcare facilities? What is the Mashonaland East provincial medical director doing about such a calamity in the area? Government should work tirelessly to improve energy supply in the country, 43 years after independence. Universal health coverage cannot be talked about without decent power at health institutions.

Many activities at healthcare institutions are power dependent. The registration of patients is a step towards treating patients and if power is down, then clinics and hospitals are forced to resort to manual registration which is tedious and slow. That automatically means there will be unnecessary delays at healthcare facilities.

Hospitals carry out many operations on a daily basis and running without power would mean many surgical operations are suspended, hence the waiting lists continuously grow. Some patients can die before they are operated on and hospital mortality can suddenly spike in critical areas like intensive care units if power back-up is not reliable. Ailment investigations depend on electricity and included here are blood tests under haematology, biochemistry and radiological investigations like X-rays, Ultrasound scans, computed tomography, magnetic resonance imaging.

Without reliable and constant supply of electricity, drugs can lose potency, especially those that should maintain the cold chain like vaccines. Included here are vaccines for COVID-19, hepatitis, measles, polio and pneumococcal, among others. Without reliable power backup, the potency of such drugs can compromised.

How many patients need to be carried on stretchers and put in lifts in multi-storey hospitals? What happens if the available power backup cannot support the lifts?

It will be difficult for relatives to carry their sick relatives upstairs. What happens with the electricity-powered water systems at clinics and hospitals in the event of power outages where there is no back-up? It is painful to imagine what happens when hospital lighting systems go out at night when patients need to receive their medications which include oral drugs, intramuscular, subcutaneous or intravenous system. The health sector should be spared from power outages.

In view of the undeniable reality of power outages, it is prudent that healthcare facilities should have reliable power back-up that automatically switches on in times of sudden power loss. It is the duty of hospital management to ensure there is adequate power back-up like solar systems and generators to cater for critical systems such as refrigerators.

It is prudent for the power utility, Zesa Holdings to have a reliable load-shedding schedule so that healthcare facilities can decide what can be shelved and what can be done. Ideally, big healthcare facilities in Harare like Sally Mugabe Hospital, Parirenyatwa Hospital, Avenues Clinic and Westend Hospital, Chitungwiza Hospital and many others should be spared from load-shedding. This calls for the establishment of special powerlines for such institutions. The Energy minister should urgently consider this.

Power outages are really a hindrance to sound health service delivery. Patients deserve better care, but without adequate power, all things go astray.

Johannes Marisa is president of the Medical and Dental Private Practitioners Association of Zimbabwe. He writes here in his personal capacity.

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