BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe, March 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) -
A s Zimbabwe’s health service buckles amid low levels of public
funding and a government freeze on hiring medical staff,
volunteers have stepped in to take the strain.
Home-based carers can be found across Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s
second largest city, where they work with local clinics to
monitor tuberculosis (TB) and HIV patients, making sure they
take their medication as prescribed.
Led by local religious organisations such as the Roman
Catholic Church, Seventh Day Adventists and Brethren in Christ,
the volunteers - almost all women - work in groups to attend
patients who need support.
“Some of the patients stay alone, and it is easy for them to
just stop taking their medications,” said Silibaziso Moyo, a
41-year-old volunteer. “Others cannot even bathe themselves. We
make sure they are clean and the places they live in are also
A Bulawayo municipality spokesperson said volunteers had
worked with the city council since the early 1990s under the
Community Participation for Health Initiative, but the need had
grown over the years with the spread of HIV and opportunistic
infections such as TB.
In 2015, the World Health Organization said Zimbabwe had
failed to meet its Millennium Development Goal target to reduce
TB prevalence, noting that this was largely due to an increase
in new infections since 2000.
Meanwhile, UNAIDS says Zimbabwe is among the countries in
sub-Saharan Africa worst-affected by the HIV and AIDS epidemic,
and has around 1.4 million people living with HIV, although
prevalence rates have dropped steadily since the late 1990s.
In their 2001 Abuja Declaration, African Union governments
pledged to allocate at least 15 percent of their annual budgets
to improve the health sector.
But in 2015, cash-strapped Zimbabwe earmarked just 6 percent
of its budget for that purpose.
This January, the ministry of health announced it would not
be hiring any more doctors, while the recruitment of nurses was
suspended last year.
Despite the huge challenges to providing adequate care in a
country where the health ministry’s budget has been cut by over
half since 2000, community volunteers are providing some relief.
In Bulawayo, the local government helps the teams of
volunteers by providing them with surgical gloves and other
protective clothing, and occasionally gives them food packs to
thank them for their efforts.
“Patients tend to ignore medication once they feel they are
better, and some stop coming for their check-ups altogether, but
we have these volunteers who follow up the patients, making sure
they at least prolong their lives,” said Tabeth Nkomo, a senior
municipality nurse who has worked with volunteers for more than
“They have helped a lot in managing HIV-related mortality.”
The city has 19 clinics, each of which can register up to
200 TB and HIV patients at any given time, Nkomo said,
highlighting the need for back-up care.
Simon Bhebhe, a pastor who coordinates 15 volunteers from
his local church, said they were doing “God’s work”.
“It is not easy - but for anyone to be found doing this kind
of work, it means they have compassion for the sick, which is a
basic Christian ethos,” he said.
According to the Home-based Care Alliance, located in the
Netherlands, there are more than 44,000 healthcare volunteers
spread across 11 countries in Africa, but this may not be enough
as some communities are failing to cope with the number of TB
and HIV patients.
The National AIDS Council of Zimbabwe, a government agency,
estimates there are around 3,000 volunteers across the country,
and Irish Aid, which runs Ireland's development assistance, has
supported 15 home-based care programmes in Zimbabwe since 2005.
“It wasn’t easy at first to have strangers coming to my
house to assist me, but I thank these women for my recovery,”
said Jacob Conjwayo, a TB patient convalescing at his home in
“I think we need more of these volunteers, as I know many
more patients who are in need of this kind of help but are not
getting it,” he said.
(Reporting by Marko Phiri; editing by Megan Rowling. Please
credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of
Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change,
resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights.