A CONSTRUCTION team goes around Wilkins Infectious Diseases Hospital in Harare doing repairs, with their Chinese instructors occasionally shouting out instructions.

BY VANESSA GONYE

These two ambulances were seen carrying two suspected coronavirus patients to Wilkins Hospital in Harare early this week

The fast-track facelift of the health facility follows a commitment by the Chinese government to assist Zimbabwe in its national response towards the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19).

An ambulance siren sounds from a distance, but no one seems to be moved by the sound at the country’s major isolation centre.

The ambulance finally makes its way through the gates into the hospital premises. A fully-geared technician disembarks and rushes to the wards set aside to cater for suspected cases of the novel pandemic.

The technician takes some time in the rooms before rushing back to the ambulance and leaving at high speed, siren sounding.

Nurses can be seen in groups talking in hushed tones, fear written all over their faces.

“We have received news that two suspected cases will be brought in anytime from now,” a doctor at the facility alerts this news crew.

About 20 minutes later, the ambulance siren is heard again, this time very loud. The driver uses the eastern gate, designated for suspected cases of COVID-19.

The gate is locked and for nearly 15 minutes, there is no response. And the ambulance waits, the siren still blaring. Eventually, a security guard walks slowly to the gate and allows the vehicle in.

As the siren begins sounding again, nurses can be seen peeping through the windows from their stations, trying to figure out what is about to happen at the institution.

“They have brought in a suspect and they are supposed to be two, the other one must be on the way,” one nurse tells her colleagues who all rush to the wards as if to take cover.

Although the nurses’ reaction at the hospital portrayed a picture of staff that did not receive adequate training in handling COVID-19 cases, city health services director Prosper Chonzi told NewsDay they were in the process of training new staff to handle the cases.

“That is ongoing. We are doing refresher courses for those that have been trained to handle outbreaks and, also, we are training those that are comfortable but have never handled outbreaks. We have also embarked on training of doctors, nurses, general hands etc outside the country,” he said.

At Wilkins Hospital’s reception area, opposition MDC leader Nelson Chamisa arrives for a tour of the facility and the ambulance drivers are instructed to keep the two patients in the vehicles until the end of the tour.

The tour took about two hours. Quizzed over the lack of urgency, one official at the hospital quipped: “These are not sick people, they are just suspects. They can be attended to anytime.”

With the world facing a threat from the deadly disease and the country yet to record its first confirmed case, the conduct at the major management centre for the disease speaks volumes of the country’s lack of preparedness to deal with the virus.

Health minister Obadiah Moyo has continuously assured citizens that his charges were well prepared for the virus should it come, but a lot is amiss given the already weak health system in the country, and the lackadaisical attention being given to suspected cases.

“Every aspect of the system is highly functional and this is not a condition from within, so it should be easier to deal with,” Moyo said in January when government started work on preparedness.

Zimbabwe has been found wanting in terms of disaster preparedness, with past cholera outbreaks and the 2019 Cyclone Idai serving as proof of the deficiency in alertness.

Critics have castigated government’s lack of urgency in dealing with the virus to lack of transparency.

The recent two suspected cases all involved Chinese nationals, allowed to come into the country while other countries have instituted travel bans to people from affected countries.

Community Working Group on Health executive director, Itai Rusike said the country should not wait to record the first confirmed case to start firefighting as that may prove costly given its weak and poorly-funded public health delivery system.

“Some countries like the USA have taken drastic measures to contain the highly infectious disease by imposing travel bans on flights, closing schools, closing of shops and a complete lockdown of towns and cities; The country is eagerly waiting for leadership and guidance from the highest office on the land on how to prevent and manage the unprecedented public health threat of COVID-19,” he said.