Harare, Zimbabwe – On January 20, Zimbabweans were shocked to learn the news of the dead Minister of Foreign Affairs Sibusiso Moyo, the latest government official to succumb to COVID-19.
The 61-year-old, who rose to fame after appearing on state television on November 15, 2017, to announce the military coup that toppled long-time President Robert Mugabe, has died in a private hospital in the capital, Harare, days after testing positive for Corona virus.
Moyo was the third cabinet minister to die from COVID-19 in recent weeks amid a major surge in the pandemic (Transport Minister Joel Biggie Matiza and Manicaland Provincial Affairs and Devolution Minister Ellen Gwaradzimba were the other two) and the fourth in total (Agriculture Minister Perrance Shiri died in July).
In the pre-pandemic times, such powerful figures would usually have been transported out of Zimbabwe to seek medical care in countries like South Africa or China. But with tighter restrictions currently limiting international travel, senior officials now face the reality of a crippled healthcare system they would normally avoid for paid treatment abroad.
“The political elites in Zimbabwe have been forced to contend with local health care which has collapsed over the years,” said analyst Vivid Gwede.
Throughout his decades-long reign, Mugabe regularly sought overseas healthcare, primarily in Singapore, where he also died in 2019 at the age of 95.
He was not the only one.
In 2017, current President and then Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa was airlifted to South Africa following suspected food poisoning during one of the ruling ZANU-PF rallies. In July 2019, Presidential Spokesman George Charamba confirmed that Vice President Constantino Chiwenga had been airlifted to China for treatment.
Chiwenga, who in August was also appointed Zimbabwe’s health minister, said earlier this year the government was planning to ban outbound medical travel by Zimbabweans, saying overseas referrals were draining the coffers from the country.
“The ministers are only twenty years old, but those who have come out are you, you, me in all. This [medical] the export bill was too high and that’s what we want to reduce, ”Chiwenga said in September.
As of January 30, Zimbabwe had confirmed 33,273 cases of the coronavirus, with 1,193 related deaths – up from 14,084 and 369, respectively, on January 1.
Other Zimbabwean bigwigs who succumbed to COVID-19 earlier this month included former deputy finance minister in the 1980s Morton Malianga, former education minister Aeneas Chigwedere and former commissioner general of prisons, Paradzai Zimondi.
“What COVID-19 has shown is that it is an ‘equalizer’. It has proven to us that we need solidarity as human beings, not the accumulation of wealth and greed, ”said Maxwell Saungweme, political analyst in Harare, stressing that COVID-19 is a non-selective disease affecting both the rich and the poor.
“The government is now more aware of the realities that poor citizens face as a result of poor service delivery. COVID-19 has shown the need to invest locally in public health and not to divert funds. “
Chiwenga extended the country’s lockdown for another two weeks on Friday and warned that variants of the coronavirus could circulate.
“These strains are more transmissible and infectious. We are doing genomic sequencing to see if these strains are in our environment, ”he said in a televised address.
‘Smell the coffee’
The ominous peak comes as the country goes through its worst economic crisis in decades, despite Mnangagwa’s promises to replace Mugabe to revitalize a fragile economy battered by years of corruption and mismanagement. The cost of living has skyrocketed due to rampant hyperinflation, while stagnant wages, monetary instability, currency shortages, and shortages of basic commodities such as electricity and water have left many Zimbabweans struggling.
The health sector has not been spared either. For more than two years, doctors and nurses have gone on strike, intermittently, over inadequate wages and poor working conditions – and more recently, over shortages of medicines and personal protective equipment (PPE ).
But their requests have apparently fallen on deaf ears.
In the 2021 budget, the Minister of Finance Mthuli Ncube allocated 12.74% of the national budget to the health sector – below the threshold set by the Abuja Declaration which obliges African Union member states to allocate to the health sector. less 15% of their annual budget to improve the health sector.
Public hospitals in Harare have only 30 intensive care unit beds, according to Norman Matara, secretary of the Zimbabwe Association of Physicians for Human Rights.
“There is a need to pay doctors adequately,” Gwede said. “There is a need to systematically invest in medical science in the country. Politicians should wake up and smell the coffee. “
Shingai Nyaguse, president of the Zimbabwe Senior Hospital Doctors Association, said more funding was needed to address the country’s public health challenges.
“We hope that all politicians, businessmen and ordinary citizens will see that well-functioning public hospitals are in everyone’s best interest,” Nyaguse said.
“We hope that politicians will be the champions of the well-being of health workers as well as the improvement of health financing and that the nation can come together for this cause.