President Robert Mugabe arrived in South Africa ahead of his meeting with President Jacob Zuma in Pretoria. Picture: Reuters/Rogan Ward

Doctors, medical personnel and donors -who fund much of Zimbabwe’s health services - are outraged that President Robert Mugabe has been named a “goodwill” ambassador by the World Health Organisation.  

Mugabe was declared a “goodwill ambassador” by the organisation earlier on in the week in Uruguay, a move that sent shock waves throughout the medical community.  

A donor based in the city of Bulawayo reacted in shock to the news. 

“We have stunting in about 30% of kids under five at present in our part of the world.

“How can WHO do this? Let’s go to Mpilo Hospital? (The main state hospital in Bulawayo)  Let’s look at the clinics? Why are ARV’s short? Why are there so many very hungry kids in this province, every day. Hundreds of thousands of them. It’s disgraceful.” 

He asked not to be named to protect his contacts in the provincial health system. 

A provincial health official from northern Zimbabwe also expressed shock at the news, saying he could not understand how the WHO had given an award to Mugabe when kids continued to go hungry.  

“We know what is going on, and there isn’t even safe water at some schools around here. We have no drugs. The clinics have nothing as well. There is malaria here," he said.

The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) meanwhile, has described the WHO award to Mugabe as “laughable.” 

Zimbabwe has had a long history of poor health service, being plagued by cholera, a shortage of drugs and a failing health system.

The country experienced the world’s lowest life expectancy after 26 years of Mugabe’s rule. In 2006, WHO recorded that women were only expected to live until they were 36, and men to 37.  

By that time it was almost impossible, politically, for donors to operate in Zimbabwe but the World Food Programme (WFP) was feeding millions of people as Mugabe and his colleagues had destroyed agricultural production. 

The collapsed economy also meant that most state hospitals were closed by mid 2008. 

Mortuaries had unreliable electricity, and the stench at state hospitals was often bad, particularly in eastern city of Mutare where the city council had to hire a bulldozer to dig a mass grave in order to bury rotting, uncollected corpses of poor people whose families could not afford to bury them.

After extreme political violence aimed at the (MDC) following its victory in the 2008 elections, the second worst cholera epidemic in the world broke out, affecting Harare mainly. 

Water supplies in the bankrupt city had broken down after years of lack of maintenance, and a shortage of cash for purification chemicals resulted in many people digging wells at their homes to find water. 

The very same water however, was often polluted by sewage from the unstable, collapsing sewage system. 

More then 100 000 people then caught cholera, of which about 6 000 died. 

Organisations like Oxfam said the high death rate had some of its roots in the population’s poor nutritional status at that time. 

People died - literally in front of reporters' eyes - day after day, in the crumbling old ‘locations’, particularly in the west of the city where people were drinking water infected with faeces. 

Donors, including churches, put in boreholes while NGOs and MDC MPs went house-to-house, trying to educate people on ways to find clean water, as well as offering families free graves when they were overwhelmed by so many deaths. 

Zanu-PF was nowhere to be seen, but army doctors, Doctors without Borders (MSF) as well as some state and municipal nurses, appalled at what they saw, worked long hours at the emergency cholera clinics set up by donors around the city. 

All this while the State tried to prevent reporters from interviewing victims at emergency cholera treatment centres. 

Staff from the UN’s Office of the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, from Pretoria also descended upon Harare when the cholera epidemic started and told journalists they were appalled at Zimbabwe’s failed health service.

Some of them were critical of some of their mute, comfortable UN colleagues assigned to Harare, who seldom spoke up about gross human rights abuses which gripped the country for several previous years. 

In 2009, an inclusive government came to power, which included the MDC. At that time most hospitals were closed. 

There were no drugs and women could not give birth in public hospitals. 

The inclusive government attracted many donors who brought in experts to get hospital doors open again and provide drugs for many HIV sufferers, particularly in rural area; as a result, hospitals doors opened again. 

Despite all these efforts, the country's health service remained a cause for concern. 

While life expectancy, maternal deaths and infant mortality rates saw an improvement from 2009 figures, the health system continued falling apart. 

The Parirenyatwa Hospital in Harare, the only teaching hospital, closed down its toilets on the ground floor. 

Three months ago, several nurses at the hospital told Independent Newspapers they had nowhere to live within the hospital any more as toilets were broken down.  

The mortuary was not working properly at that time either. The hospital looks and is, largely derelict. 

Four major hospitals - Harare Central, Parirenyatwa, United Bulawayo Hospitals, and Mpilo Central - all have critical shortages of drugs. 

Mpilo Central "has below 50% of its requirements,” the hospital revealed in a recent statement. 

Most patients, even the poorest, meanwhile, often have to find money to pay for drugs at state hospitals. 

So dire is the state of the country's hospitals, Mugabe himself refuses to use them when seeking treatment, opting to consults doctors in Singapore. 

The president spends hundreds of millions of rands several times a year on medical treatment, using one of only three Air Zimbabwe planes to fly to Asia to get treatment for his eyes; this despite Zimbabwe having good eye specialists. 

Senior Zanu-PF officials also choose to seek medical treatment in other countries, with the likes of vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa opting to seek treatment in South Africa.  

The same can be said for cancer treatment, with patients having no access to chemotherapy.

Independent Foreign Service