Signs of recovery appear in Zimbabwe hospitals

By MacDonald Dzirutwe

HARARE (Reuters) - The odours of death and decay are gone from the corridors of Zimbabwe's biggest hospital, replaced by the smells of medicines and food for the patients who are once again coming for treatment.

Nowhere is the change in Zimbabwe more evident than in the hospitals that just months ago failed so woefully to cope with a cholera epidemic that killed more than 4,000 people.

Since a new power-sharing government between President Robert Mugabe and old rival Morgan Tsvangirai started work in February, doctors and nurses are being paid again and have returned to Harare's Parirenyatwa General Hospital.

UNICEF has been helping to pay allowances to some doctors and nurses while the government is now paying them $100 (63.91 pounds) a month like other state employees.

Zimbabwe's stocks of drugs have risen from 10 percent of what they should be to 42 percent and are set to reach 60 percent in August, according to the Health Ministry.

"Things seem a bit better compared to when I was here in January but drugs are still short," said Emelda Mwaera, 61 and diabetic, as she was wheeled by a nurse from the hospital to a car.

In December, she lost her youngest son to cholera because nobody could care for him at a clinic in Budiriro township.

But despite the evident improvements in the hospitals, Zimbabwe's full recovery from a decade of decline will take much longer and there is no sign yet of the big inflows of money needed from Western donors who demand greater reform.

Even in the health sector, Zimbabwe is far from being able to provide the care it once did, not least because many doctors and nurses were among the estimated three million Zimbabweans -- a quarter of the population -- who have fled in search of work.

"If this was a patient you could say he has regained consciousness after a long coma but it will be some time before he takes the first step," said one junior doctor who gave his name only as Bright.

Teachers are also reporting for work after the government exempted their children from fees. Prices have stabilised after authorities allowed use of multiple currencies and shops have basic goods again. Councils have started rubbish collections.

But there are less promising signs too. The biggest university is shut because it has no water and students cannot afford the fees, many Zimbabweans struggle to pay for the newly available goods, and health experts fear disease could spread again.


The government is trying to raise billions of dollars from Western donors and last week launched a 100-day plan meant to restore the economy and set targets on political and economic reforms.

But Western donors are yet to be convinced. The World Bank has said it will provide $22 million, although not through the government. The United States also emphasised that it was not ready to restart aid to the government for now.

"I want to be sure that any aid that comes from an American perspective gets through to the people," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told South African television.

The power-sharing government has still fared far better than many pundits had expected given the depth of bitterness between Tsvangirai and Mugabe. Tsvangirai said on Thursday that only two areas of disagreement remained within the government -- the posts of central bank governor and attorney general.

While journalists, human rights and opposition activists are still being arrested, political tension has eased.

"There is a melting away of the fear that had become omnipresent in Zimbabwe's political environment," said political analyst Eldred Masunungure.

African institutions are making available more than $1 billion to revive closed industries. Gold producers are re-starting shut mines, tempted by the more conducive political environment and strong prices.

The government is targeting 6 percent growth in 2009 after years of decline.

But the danger for the coalition remains that the more it raises expectations, the more it will be expected to deliver.

State employees are already demanding salary hikes from their $100 monthly allowance to $460, saying that meets the basic needs of an average family of five. Strikes would not augur well for the government.

"What the masses want are tangible things like functioning schools, hospitals, good roads and good prices for their produce and jobs. So far it has tried and I will give it a marginal pass," Eldred Masunungure, a leading political analyst said.

"But the government will stand or fall on delivery."

Article Published: 21/05/2009