Doctors sue Zimbabwe government over lack of Covid-19 protective equipment

Nyasha Chingono in Harare
Photograph: Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters

The Zimbabwean government has been taken to court over its failure to provide doctors working on the frontline of the Covid-19 pandemic with masks.

The Zimbabwe Association for Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) is seeking to compel the authorities urgently to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical practitioners, warning that medics in the country’s troubled health sector will otherwise die.

“There are simply no adequate PPEs for health personnel working at public and private health facilities in the country. We attest to the shortages because we work there,” read the court application, seen by the Guardian.

“If no urgent steps are taken to address the shortcomings, the country will be caught unprepared to handle a possible escalation of the Covid-19 pandemic and many lives will be lost, sadly including the lives of those at the frontline.”

ZADHR said 1,500 staff working in public hospitals require at least three masks daily, a “luxury” that the government is failing to provide.

“Yet it is a necessity if we are to avert the Italian disaster, where a large number of health practitioners got infected through the provision of health services to patients,” the statement said.

Since Zimbabwe recorded its first positive case last month, testing has lagged behind. As of last Thursday, only 316 suspected cases had been tested for Covid-19.

According to the health ministry, Zimbabwe has recorded 10 positive cases, including one death – that of Zororo Makamba, a prominent television journalist. With kits unavailable, neither doctors nor suspected sufferers are being tested. Many cases are being turned away from Wilkins hospital, Harare’s main isolation facility.

The latest move comes after junior doctors and nurses went on strike a fortnight ago in protest over the lack of PPE.

A fortnight ago, Zimbabwe received a donation from the Jack Ma Foundation that included 200,000 tests, 100,000 face masks and 10,000 protective suits, but the equipment is not enough for the country’s health personnel.

Tapiwa Mungofa, treasurer of the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association, said hospitals had entered emergency mode.

“Only a few doctors, especially those with their own transport and those who reside at the hospitals, are reporting for duty,” Mungofa said.

Zimbabwe’s health sector has been crippled since last year after months of strikes over poor working conditions, with doctors claiming that patients were dying due to lack of medical supplies.

Related: 'We will starve': Zimbabwe's poor full of misgiving over Covid-19 lockdown

Zimbabwe’s once vibrant health delivery system has collapsed over the past two decades, largely due to an economic crisis. This has raised doubts over the country’s ability to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

In January, doctors ended the months-long strike when billionaire Strive Masiyiwa intervened, offering to pay salaries for more than 2,000 medical personnel for six months.