Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Tsvangirai Prioritises Health and Education

Both sectors have virtually crumbled under the weight of the economic crisis.
By Hativagone Mushonga
At the signing ceremony for Zimbabwe’s long-awaited power-sharing agreement this week, new prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai promised to tackle the struggling health and education sectors as a matter of priority.

“We need medication and doctors back in our hospitals and we need teachers back in our schools,” said Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, leader Tsvangirai, to resounding applause.

Zimbabweans are now waiting to see who Tsvangirai and President Robert Mugabe will appoint to head the two vital ministries, both of which have virtually crumbled under the weight of the country’s economic crisis.

Under the agreement, the new government will comprise 13 ministers from the Tsvangirai-led opposition group the MDC, 15 from the ruling ZANU-PF and three from Arthur Mutambara’s MDC splinter group.

Many hope that Mugabe will hand control of the two vital ministries to Tsvangirai’s party, since ZANU-PF seems to have run out of ideas about how to resuscitate the sectors, which were once Africa’s finest.

However, Tsvangirai – who this week also vowed to address the widespread starvation affecting many across the country by lifting government restrictions on aid agencies – will have his work cut out in turning the beleaguered health and education systems around.

A shortage of health-care professionals, drugs and essential medical equipment has meant Zimbabweans are being denied their right to healthcare. The collapsing health sector – and soaring cost of medical care – has forced thousands of ailing people to seek treatment from traditional and self-proclaimed spiritual healers.

The economic turmoil in the country – which has pushed many poor and middle-class Zimbabweans to the brink of starvation – has caused healthcare professionals to leave in droves for neighbouring countries and positions abroad.

According to statistics from the ministry of health, government hospitals require at least 1,530 doctors to function smoothly – they currently have less than half that number and a little more than half of the required 11,640 nurses.

As if these staff shortages are not enough in a country ravaged by HIV/AIDS, the public health sector has been hit by perennial strikes and has been turning away patients, advising them to seek treatment at private health institutions – a luxury few Zimbabweans can afford.

Private hospitals are demanding a deposit for a three-day stay of the equivalent of more than 300 US dollars before they will even admit patients. Maternity sections are charging 1,700 US dollars, and a major operation may cost as much as 60,000 US dollars.

And these amounts don’t guarantee that patients will be properly fed, as the country’s food crisis has hit the private hospital sector too. At one such institution, which IWPR monitored for a month, patients were served cabbage and maize meal porridge only on some days, with an occasional egg for supper.

With the cost of medicine escalating almost weekly, health workers say many AIDS patients can no longer afford the life-saving antiretroviral drugs they need. Stopping treatment is not only putting their own lives in danger, but creating ideal conditions for the emergence of drug-resistant strains of HIV.

“[The crisis is] creating a health-care apartheid. We're no longer looking at the colour of the people, we're looking at the fatness of their wallets,” said physician Elopy Sibanda.

The failing health system, combined with the rampant HIV/AIDS pandemic, has contributed to a plummeting life expectancy. The World Health Organisation, WHO, has estimated a Zimbabwean man’s life expectancy as 37 and that of the average woman as 34.

Education is also in crisis. Zimbabwe, which once boasted the highest literacy rate in the continent, is now experiencing an unprecedented dropout and failure rate as the country’s education system has gone into freefall.

As recently as 2000, according to United Nations figures, 90 per cent of young Zimbabweans attended primary schools. By 2003, that figure had plummeted to just 65 per cent and has continued to drop.

The education system is yet another casualty of the country’s economic crisis. Many parents can no longer afford to pay school fees and teachers are demoralised by monthly salaries of as little as 1,200 Zimbabwean dollars, just enough to buy a loaf of bread.

The result has been an exodus of teachers. According to the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe, PTUZ, a total of 25,000 teachers left the country in 2007.

In the first two months of this year, 8,000 teachers quit and a shocking 150,000 teaching vacancies cannot be filled. Parents lucky enough to have qualified teachers for their children have to contribute transport allowances in US dollars.

They are also buying groceries to retain the teachers and ensure that their children receive some form of education.

“We are paying 5 US dollars a day and buying monthly groceries for my daughter’s teacher. We understand that the teacher cannot offer proper services if she is demoralised. This year, our children have really suffered,” said Harare resident Angeline Mabika.

“I, personally, am excited about the [power-sharing] deal and am hoping that the new government deals with education once and for all. We want to go back to the standards of the 1980s and 1990s. I believe education is as much a priority as the economy.”

Hativagone Mushonga is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.