A man wearing a mask is seen near a food queue in Harare, Zimbabwe, March 25, 2020.
A man wearing a mask is seen near a food queue in Harare, Zimbabwe, March 25, 2020.

HARARE, ZIMABABWE - Doctors and nurses in Zimbabwe’s public hospitals have gone on strike and are vowing not to return until the government gives them personal protective equipment so they can safely treat suspected coronavirus patients. Public health specialists warn that without action to resolve the matter, Zimbabwe could turn into another COVID-19 epicenter.

Doctors and nurses from government hospitals said they went on strike because pleas to address their safety concerns had fallen on deaf ears.

The issue first arose after Zororo Makamba, a well-known TV broadcaster, died Monday at Zimbabwe’s designated hospital for COVID-19 patients.

A March 5, 2020 photo of Wilkins hospital in Harare, Zimbabwe’s designated hospital for COVID-19 patients, where Zororo Makamba, a well-known TV broadcaster, died on March 23, 2020. (Columbus Mavhunga/VOA)

His family said the hospital lacked the necessary equipment for treating Makamba, and doctors said they did not have the right masks and protective clothing. 

On Thursday, doctors and nurses union officials addressed their members outside the country’s main hospital in Harare and circulated the audio on social media. 

“We need personal protective equipment for our doctors and nurses, and for everyone who is going to be working in the health sector, or anyone who is going to be in contact with anyone who is going to be affected by this coronavirus," said Tapiwa Mungofa, treasurer of Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association. "Where we are right now is not a position that we wanted, and as soon as our protection as health workers is guaranteed, we are ready to serve the Zimbabwean population. We are ready to fight this coronavirus.”

Fortune Nyamande, a public health specialist, is the spokesman from the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights. 

Speaking via WhatsApp, he said his organization was not surprised about the actions of the health personnel, given their low salaries and poor working conditions.

“These issues which are being raised by the government doctors and nurses have been said for quite a lot of time," said Nyamande. "The government has been paying lip service in terms of responding to grievances raised by medical personnel. It is the time for the state to recalibrate its commitment towards taking good care of the welfare of health workers.”

Health Minister Obediah Moyo speaking to journalists in Harare, March 5, 2020, after Zimbabwe received some equipment from the World Health Organization to fight COVID19. (Columbus Mavhunga/VOA)

Later Thursday, Health Minister Obediah Moyo told a government-controlled TV station that health personnel would receive protective gear that Chinese billionaire Jack Ma donated this week.

“We want them to be back at work and not to worry, as we are even getting some more protective equipment," said Moyo. "We cannot joke about the life of our nation, let alone of those who look after the sick. If I could add on: The government has decided that they should get risk allowance. A COVID-19 risk allowance is necessary for all those health workers who are providing this service."

So far, Zimbabwe has seen two confirmed COVID-19 cases, including Makamba.  Doctors are waiting for test results on another suspected coronavirus patient.