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New-born babies ‘dying like flies’ during Zimbabwe’s Covid-19 lockdown

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  • “I don’t go to work every day [because the situation is] too bad. I go into the hospital to sign death certificates [because] if I didn’t go in the rats would eat the bodies first as there are so many of them,” a doctor says.

SINCE the outbreak of COVID-19, Zimbabwe is reporting increasing cases of stillbirths.

Official statistics have counted 97 stillbirths in the main hospital in Harare in five months, mostly due to lack of urgent medical attention as health workers are hesitant to attend to patients, without protective gear.

Recently, 29-year old Petina Ngwenya gave birth to a dead baby, after she was tested COVID-19 positive. While doctors are still unable to link stillbirths with the pandemic, experts say it is because of a defunct healthcare system.

Zimbabwe’s nurses and doctors have been on a nationwide strike protesting at the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE).

“Precisely, pregnant women even as nurses and doctors are turning up in very low numbers at public healthcare centers. We hardly can help because we have no PPEs,” a midwife at Parirenyatwa Hospital in Harare, told Anadolu Agency on condition of anonymity.

Health activists say the expecting mothers are rapidly falling prey to pregnancy-induced hypertension, with the pandemic further worsening the situation.

“Hypertension associated with pregnancy has accelerated stillbirths in this country, but we can also not rule out how COVID-19 has also impacted on expecting mothers because everyone including pregnant mothers is forced to get tested for the disease before they are assisted to deliver,” Mirirai Chiongwe, a nurse in the capital Harare, told Anadolu Agency.

She said only a few expecting mothers afford to get tested for coronavirus before they deliver as per new requirements.

With most public healthcare facilities shut down, expecting mothers across Zimbabwe have no choice except to seek medical help from private clinics where charges are as high as $60 per test.

According to the Health and Child Care Ministry, pregnancy-induced hypertension (PIH) is one of the common causes of both maternal and neonatal morbidity.

Health expert Melinda Chikasha believed that hypertension affecting pregnant mothers is working hand-in-glove with coronavirus fears to worsen the health condition of expecting mothers.

In July alone this year, seven babies were stillborn at Harare Central Hospital amid claims that urgent treatment was delayed because of staffing issues.

A photo of hospital paperwork sent to The Telegraph by Zimbabwean doctors confirming the deaths of seven babies at Harare Central Hospital on Monday 27 July 2020.  CREDIT: ZIMBABWEAN DOCTORS

Medical staff at the hospital told The Telegraph that they could do nothing for them because of an enormous lack of staff, drugs and medical equipment. Instead, doctors say all they could do was weep as the babies and women died one by one. 

“[It] has been a living hell,” said one doctor, “the cries of mothers in pain, mothers dying, the faces of all those dead babies [that] you could have saved only if the system was functional.”

“All you do is just look at them helpless. Look at some of them ending up having uterine ruptures, bleeding to death and 80 [per cent] delivering dead babes.”

A health worker carries disinfectant equipment outside a hospital during the coronavirus disease outbreak in Harare, Zimbabwe on July 6, 2020. CREDIT: PHILIMON BULAWAYO /REUTERS

“I don’t think anything can be done with this government in place,” said a senior Zimbabwe doctor who asked not to be identified. 

“I don’t go to work every day [because the situation is] too bad. I go into the hospital to sign death certificates [because] if I didn’t go in the rats would eat the bodies first as there are so many of them.” 

“Health care within the hospital system is at a catastrophic point. It is collapsing and we haven’t even hit the needs for those with Covid-19 ahead of the curve,” said Dr Greg Powell, a consultant paediatrician at Harare Central Hospital.

“Things are falling apart. Babies are dying, so are the mothers, and so many are now being delivered mentally retarded and spastic for the rest of their lives.” 

“The nurses haven’t got enough to live on. Three nurses are needed for a cesarean. And they are not there,” added Dr Powell. “Things have come to a head. We are reaching a crunch point.”

Zimbabwe’s Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has asked all stakeholders, the government, medical practitioners, civil society, and individuals to put their acts together to save the voiceless mothers and babies.

Nurses are arrested by the police for taking part in protest to demand for salary increase at the Harare Central Hospital in the capital Harare, Zimbabwe, 06 July 2020 CREDIT: AARON UFUMELI/EPA

Zimbabwe’s Vice President Constantino Chiwenga, who also doubles as health minister, has further complicated the situation by ordering junior doctors to work in the military before they are allowed to work in government hospitals.

Human rights activist Claris Madhuku, the head of the Platform for Youth Development, said the government action has further depleted the number of doctors in government hospitals, resulting in more stillborn cases.

While according to the World Health Organization the maternal mortality ratio had considerably declined in Zimbabwe over the years, Chiongwe said the advent of COVID-19 has made things again difficult.

“The gains made in curtailing cases of stillbirths and in this case maternal mortality may be reversed because health workers are hesitant to attend to patients, especially to expecting mothers during the pandemic,” she said. – Anadolu Agency / The Telegraph ■

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