They are exhausted and demoralized, after years of hard work for meager wages in impoverished hospitals: in Zimbabwe, Virginia, Josephine and many other nurses dream only of exile from a dying health system.
With her blue nursing uniform still on her back, Virginia Mutsamwira collects the day's takings in the grocery store she runs in her house near the capital, Harare, before going to feed chickens and rabbits: given her salary, she has no choice but to multiply her odd jobs. However, at 52, Virginia has just returned from a grueling 12-hour shift at a clinic in Cold Comfort, a poor neighborhood near Harare. There, she says, she treats four times more patients than the ideal number.
There are not enough nurses," she says, dropping onto her brown couch. It's exhausting. And frustrating, because we can't provide quality care." Soon, she will follow the example of the nearly 1,800 nurses - more than 10 percent of the country's public hospital workforce - who emigrated in 2021, mostly to Britain. She has to feed her family of eight and "ensure [her] retirement," she tells AFP.
Virginia has already passed the English test required to obtain a visa in the UK, where salaries are ten times higher than the 190 euros per month paid on average in Zimbabwe. Since the Brexit, immigration rules there have been relaxed to attract nurses and care assistants.
The Zimbabwean health system is in its death throes. So is the country's economy, which has been plagued by a serious crisis for the past ten years. Food, electricity, fuel, everything is in short supply. Those who remain work long hours to fill the gaps in their schedules.
Josephine Marare has been working for twenty years at the Sally Mugabe public hospital, one of the largest in the country. "We are always overworked because many nurses leave," she says.
The chronic under-equipment is a further morale killer. "Imagine working in a hospital where there are no dressings, no water or basic medicines like painkillers," she says. If she can find the money for a visa, she will leave, "like the others". This exodus is leading to new requests for passports. In the capital, before dawn, queues form in front of the administrative buildings that issue them.
Some of the most qualified nurses accept menial jobs, as long as they are abroad," says Simbarashe Tafirenyika, president of a nurses' union. "A nurse's aide in the U.K. earns much more than a nurse here," he says.
The main reason for the exodus is "low wages," he says. People have to pay school fees, put food on the table. If someone has an opportunity, they leave."
"We are hiring"
When asked by AFP, the government's Health Service Board, which grades and appoints health staff in the public sector, acknowledges that the departure of so many nurses is hurting the quality of care. "Losing experienced staff is always a challenge," notes Livingstone Mashange, its spokesperson.
Their website opens with a photo of nurses and a bold message, "We're hiring." Recruitment and training have begun. Retired nurses have returned to work.
In Britain, the Covid pandemic created an additional demand for nurses, especially since the Brexit had drastically reduced the number of those coming from Europe.
When Jason Mutambara, 45, received his first paycheck, the equivalent of 3,200 euros in England, he felt like he was "winning the lottery." "We're not even thinking about coming back right now," says the nurse. Having left a year ago, he can now easily pay for his four children's schooling.
Britain is expected to continue hiring in the coming years. According to a report published in June by the Health Foundation think tank, its health system (NIH) is facing a shortage of 93,000 employees, some 42% of whom are nurses.