NURSES at major public hospitals in Harare and Bulawayo downed tools yesterday for fear of contracting the deadly COVID-19 virus after being forced to work without personal protective equipment (PPE).
The work stoppage, which is likely to plunge the health delivery system into turmoil given the recent countrywide surge in COVID-19 cases, came after a matron at Sally Mugabe Central Hospital in Harare reportedly succumbed to the killer disease on Wednesday.
Sally Mugabe Hospital maternity nurses vowed yesterday that they would not risk working without PPE, amid claims that seven staff members and 15 patients had also tested positive for COVID-19.
When NewsDay visited the hospital early yesterday morning, the nurses said the now-deceased, Miriam Pundu, was on duty on Sunday mingling with other staff and patients, but was later taken ill after exhibiting COVID-19-related
“She was admitted for a day, but sadly passed away,” an official at the hospital said.
It emerged that nurses at the hospital’s maternity ward were being forced to admit COVID-19 positive expecting mothers even without appropriate PPE as stipulated by the World Health Organisation.
The midwives said they only had plastic aprons and surgical masks as protective clothing at a time COVID-19 is threatening to overwhelm both public and private hospitals, with Harare recording a new high of 777 cases on Tuesday, and accounting for 10 of the 34 deaths recorded on the same day.
The capital, which has become the country’s COVID-19 epicentre, has cumulatively reported 5 872 cases since March last year.
Zimbabwe Nurses Association (ZiNA) president Enock Dongo said the situation was now untenable.
“This is what we have been saying all along. The government is not ready. Health workers are being infected with COVID-19,” Dongo said.
He said all PPE had been concentrated at Parirenyatwa Red Zone, a designated COVID-19 centre.
Dongo said at Sally Mugabe Hospital, every ward now had COVID-19 patients and they could not be transferred to Parirenyatwa Red Zone, which was also overwhelmed.
“COVID-19 patients are everywhere and nurses are now being forced to handle these cases without adequate PPE,” he said.
“Nurses are sick and the staff clinic is attending to between 80 to 100 health workers per day.”
Dongo said this was a catastrophe of unimaginable levels as patients were being tended by sick nurses.
“So patients who come with ordinary ailments are now at risk of contracting COVID-19 from the nurses,” he said.
Sally Mugabe Hospital acting chief executive officer Christopher Pasi could not immediately comment on the matter, saying he was busy, while hospital spokesperson Juliet Chikurunhe was unreachable on her mobile phone.
Health and Child Care deputy minister John Mangwiro’s phone was also not reachable.
In Bulawayo, there were fears of soaring COVID-19 cases at Mpilo Central Hospital after some nurses exhibited symptoms of the deadly virus.
A nurse said there were fears that the health workers would end up infecting patients with COVID-19.
“There are many health workers who are showing symptoms of the deadly virus, but are not being tested because we are being told that there are no test kits,” said the nurse, who declined to be named.
“The worst part is that patients who come in are put in wards without being tested and nurses are told to go and treat them without personal protective equipment. People are dying in Bulawayo because nurses are the ones who are infected.”
Nurses claimed a whole ward tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday, but the nurses were ordered to continue working because they were asymptomatic.
Dongo said they had taken government to court demanding that nurses should decongest at hospitals, but the government defied the court order.
“It is very sad that we have nurses that are sick and are not being tested, raising fears that all the hospitals would close since most of the nurses would test positive for the deadly virus,” he said.
“It is not the issue of test kits, but the cruelty of the authorities that do not want nurses to know their statuses. The nurses should be decongested in hospitals. We appealed to the court and won the case twice, but the government is defying the court order.
“It’s better for President Emmerson Mnangangwa to deal with this issue because what is currently happening is playing with the lives of people.”
Mpilo Central Hospital chief executive officer Solwayo Ngwenya said staff at the institution was being tested.
“We test everyone, the patients and the staff. We have an open ward where we test everyone and here at Mpilo, we even follow and test dead bodies. If you visit the hospital, you will see that this is a lie,” Ngwenya said.
The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights accused government of defying a court order compelling it to provide adequate PPE to hospital staff.
“The Ministry of Health and Child Care and the Ministry of Finance are in contempt of court. There is a court order they are defying. Frontline health workers must have adequate PPE.”
Last year, the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) took government to court over PPE provision in public institutions.
On April 14, 2020, the High Court ruled that government should provide all frontline health practitioners working at public health facilities in the country or deployed to trace contacts exposed by infected people with adequate PPE.
It also ruled that government should set up appropriately equipped quarantine and isolation facilities in all provinces, at district hospitals and at designated airports and points of entry.
In a monitoring report on Wednesday, ZADHR expressed concern over the continued increase in the number of health professionals being infected with COVID-19 during the course of their duty.
“Our conservative estimates, points towards over 1 000 health workers being infected with COVID-19. Medical associations have continued to highlight the worrying trends of health workers working without adequate PPE. We reiterate that the unavailability of PPE is a violation of the 2020 High Court ruling (ZADHR vs Ministry of Health and Child Care and Others) which directed government to provide adequate PPE to all frontline health workers and also is against the tenets of the International Labour Organisation Decent Work Agenda,” the rights doctors said.
They said they would soon be seeking enforcement of the court resolutions in an effort to ensure adequate protection of health workers.
On testing and screening, the rights doctors said the current testing statistics were not in tandem with the rising burden of COVID-19.
“The positivity rate in the few tests done over the past few days has been averaging 20%, highlighting the possibility that the pandemic could be much worse than what is reflecting in the MOHCC SitReps [Ministry of Health and Child Care situational reports. Furthermore, the proximity and increased travel between Zimbabwe and South Africa calls for Zimbabwe to also investigate the genomic structure of the COVID-19 cases we are witnessing urgently. The public health approach must then be tailored depending on whether we are dealing with a more transmissible strain of COVID 19 or not,” ZADHR said.