PATIENTS seeking admission to public and private hospitals are now required to produce coronavirus test results before being taken in under a new policy likely to force the majority poor to die at home due to the prohibitive costs involved.
Health and Child Care deputy minister John Mangwiro confirmed the new policy requirement when he was quizzed over the matter in Parliament by Masvingo senator Tichinani Mavetera (MDC Alliance) on Thursday.
Mavetera, who is also a medical practitioner, said the directive was likely to trigger home deaths as most families could not afford the US$25 to $100 required for private COVID-19 tests.
“Is the ministry aware of what is happening in both private and public health institutions where we have experienced many non-COVID-19 deaths because the policy is that one cannot be admitted when they do not have COVID-19 test results?
“Patients are asked to produce COVID-19 test results first. I have evidence of the silent deaths of our citizens. For instance, for paediatrics, they ask for COVID-19 test results for the child and the mother who will be accompanying the child. That will be a double cost for the two and the ministry must investigate the manner in which patients are being handled,” Mavetera said.
In response, Mangwiro said while health institutions insisted on COVID-19 test results, they still treated the patients.
“We have rapid testing kits and a few testing kits and centres, but we are improving on the figures. We encourage bunching and sampling to be done at the shortest possible time. We need to ensure that those with diabetes, hypertension, asthma are treated for COVID-19 because if they have COVID-19 they are in more danger. However, while they await COVID-19 results, we do not stop treating people,” Mangwiro said.
He said government insisted that patients must be handled with empathy and served as quickly as possible.
Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights secretary Norman Matara said they had received reports of pregnant mothers placed in quarantine centres and only tested for coronavirus.
“We have raised concerns that we have shifted our focus to the COVID-19 pandemic, neglecting patients suffering from other chronic illnesses which are preventable. Patients suffering from chronic illnesses like diabetes and other diseases that need monitoring are finding it hard since most hospitals have closed outpatients seeking medical attention. We are urging the government to monitor such cases because we cannot afford to have patients suffering from chronic illnesses losing their lives from preventable diseases,” Matara said.
“We have also verified reports of pregnant mothers who are placed in quarantine centres. They are only being tested for COVID-19 but these mothers need to be given ante-natal healthcare to prevent mortality rate. So we urge the government to monitor that so as to reduce the death of patients from controlled chronic illnesses.”
Community Working Group on Health executive director Itai Rusike said the move was unethical and unacceptable.
“If by any chance there are health workers demanding COVID-19 health certificates from patients visiting health institutions before they can be attended to, it is illegal, unethical and unacceptable as it is not an official position of the Health and Child Care ministry,” he said.
“It is the responsibility of the government to meet the cost of testing the potential clients visiting health facilities if it suspects that they may be COVID-19 patients as a precautionary measure to protect the health workers.”
Rusike added: “Because of the fear of coronavirus, some health staff are becoming extra worried about their own safety as most of them do not have adequate personal protective equipment. As a result, people coming to a health facility with a cough or a fever are seen suspiciously. This has a negative effect on the health-seeking behaviour as the majority poor may not afford the cost of COVID-19 testing and hence may just get sick and die at home.
“We, therefore, urge the Health Ministry to investigate the allegations and put in place measures to stop the practice and make sure that there is universal access to healthcare services even during the COVID-19 crisis.”
Government’s Harare-based National Reference Laboratory recently recorded a huge backlog of samples, while Mpilo Central Hospital’s National Tuberculosis Reference Laboratory and the Applied Genetic Testing Centre (AGTC) at National University of Science and Technology closed their coronavirus testing facilities due to lack of consumables and government support.
To date, Zimbabwe has conducted 35 538 tests comprising 21 202 rapid diagnostic tests (RDT) and 15 336 PCR.
In a related development, the number of returnees fleeing from quarantine centres keep rising amid reports that some were bribing their way out to avoid paying US$65 which government claimed was for transportation of their test samples. The returnees have also raised concern over the government’s neglect of people with other health complications who have not been attended to since their isolation, despite advising authorities.
“Yesterday (Saturday), we were asked to pay US$65 each for test kits to be tested for COVID19,” said one of the returnees at Belvedere Technical Teachers College isolation centre.
“We have been in isolation for 16 days and we have never been tested until today when they came asking for the money for us to be tested. Others were bribing their way out of this place.”
Zimbabwe last week was reported to have run out of test kits.
Yesterday, about 500 returnees at the Belvedere Technical Teachers College quarantine centre protested against the order to have them pay US$65 for test kits.
A source at the centre revealed that they chased away health officials who had come to check temperatures and refused lunch demanding to be addressed by authorities.
But the head of Chinhoyi Training Centre quarantine centre, Paradzai Mudzengerere said the US$65 was for transportation of the samples for testing.
“It’s wrong to say that the money is for testing, but for viral transport media used to carry samples to be tested and as a government we don’t have, but it is available at private hospitals and clinics for US$65. The ministry is only facilitating for those who are willing and have the money to buy. People are not being forced to pay,” he said.
About 51 returnees detained at Chinhoyi Training Centre complained of sexual harassment by police officers at the quarantine centre. They also said there was a food shortage at the centre.
Mashonaland West acting police spokesperson Inspector Ian Kohwera said they had not received any complaints of harassment by uniformed officers at the centre.
“We haven’t received reports of sexual activities involving police officers,” Kohwera said.