Harare, Zimbabwe – Samuel Chikengezha, a 35-year-old firefighter, is sitting on a couch in his modest home, staring at the television set while stressing about how he will fare this month.
He has not yet paid school fees for his three children, he said – one of many financial challenges he faces because the money he first responds to moving to Zimbabwe has not kept pace with inflation for years.
“I survive on loans from friends and family to get by because the money is scarce enough,” he told Al Jazeera.
Like many of his colleagues, Chikengezha reckons the solution to his financial woes is to leave Zimbabwe for a higher-paying job abroad.
“I want to leave the country. Each of us wants to leave for other countries. “We are really all in standby mode,” he said. “As soon as an opportunity presents itself, I’m out.”
Zimbabwe’s economy was already on its knees before the pandemic struck, and COVID-19 only made matters worse.
Salaries are stagnating, foreign exchange is in short supply, and the purchasing power of the Zimbabwean dollar continues to erode, with annual inflation reaching 60 percent by the end of last year. Manufacturing is low, and poverty is rising along with prices for everything, including necessities like food and fuel.
Now the economic massacre threatens essential public services by causing a massive brain drain in critical sectors.
Harare City Council, which manages the Zimbabwean capital’s fire brigade, said the city lost 125 firefighters last year.
Innocent Ruwende, spokesman for the council, told Al Jazeera that they had left to look for more lucrative jobs overseas, mostly in the Middle East Gulf states.
“Our firefighters are in demand because they are highly trained,” he said.
The draw for higher pay, better conditions
The allure of a more lucrative, more stable payday abroad is an enticing proposition for Chikengezha, who is currently bringing home $ 200 a month.
“Entrance salaries [abroad] is somewhere in the range of $ 1,300- $ 1,500, ”he said.
It’s not just firefighters who are chasing bigger paychecks. Brain drain is also hurting Zimbabwe’s healthcare sector. With the pandemic increasing the demand for health care workers around the world, Zimbabwe lost about 2,000 professional health workers last year, according to state media. This is more than double the exodus rate of 2020.
The president of the Zimbabwean Nurses’ Association, Enock Dongo, told Al Jazeera that poor pay and working conditions force more nurses to look for jobs outside the difficult Southern African nation, where nurses earn less than $ 200 a month.
“The salaries of nurses in Zimbabwe are too low. “Even compared to peers in the Southern African region, Zimbabwean nurses are paid the least,” Dongo told Al Jazeera.
He also noted that a lack of personal protective equipment had made conditions for nurses in Zimbabwe “really dangerous”.
The public riot
As the number of firefighters declined, a public outcry arose that accused the first responders of poor service.
In November, Harare’s fire department was heavily criticized over a penthouse fire that cost the life of investment banker Douglas Munatsi.
Clever Mafoti, acting fire chief, defended the fire department’s performance, saying trees prevented air ladders from being deployed to save Munatsi on the ninth floor.
And while Mafoti acknowledges that an exodus of firefighters has an impact, he maintains that the service is still there for the people of Harare when it counts.
“Our ability to perform our duties is weak or diminished, but we are still able to fulfill our duties,” he told Al Jazeera. “We have not yet reached a stage where we have failed to fulfill our duties and have only caused people’s property to burn to the ground.”
But Mafoti said financial constraints take a toll beyond staff shortages – specifically with outdated fire trucks.
“[The city] the council promised us some vehicles, but as you know, it is usually a process, ”he said.
On the healthcare front, pregnant women in Glen View and Budiriro, both high-density suburbs south of Harare, no longer have antenatal care at specialty clinics because there are no nurses on staff to provide those services.
“Specially trained nurses such as antenatal nurses have gone out of their way to seek better opportunities elsewhere,” said Harare City Council spokesman Ruwende, adding that he was looking for partners to provide funding in US dollars to hire increasingly scarce talent.
“People prefer to earn US dollars and they refuse our offers for work,” he said.