Health workers screen people visiting a public hospital in Harare, Zimbabwe, March 21, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi

This week the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) approached the High Court in Harare to compel the government to provide them with personal protective equipment (PPE) and adequately equip public hospitals to combat the COVID-19 outbreak. The court has yet to rule on the matter.

For years, Zimbabwe has grappled with a shortage of skilled professionals and healthcare staff; an eroded infrastructure with ill-equipped hospitals, many lacking functional laundry machines, kitchen equipment, and boilers; and a lack of essential medicines and commodities.

As of April 7, Zimbabwe had 11 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including two deaths. In response to the coronavirus, President Emmerson Mnangagwa declared a lockdown until April 19, curtailing movement, shutting most shops, and suspending flights in and out of the country

ZADHR, represented in court by the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, said more than 1,500 doctors and other health practitioners were working across the country without adequate PPE. In late March, government nurses and doctors went on strike to protest the shortage of PPE in government hospitals. In January, government doctors and nurses ended a strike over pay and poor working conditions that had lasted more than four months. This was after Zimbabwean telecoms billionaire Strive Masiyiwa said he would set up a 100 million Zimbabwean dollar fund to pay up to 2,000 doctors a subsistence allowance of about US$300 a month to help them with transport and living costs.

The Zimbabwe authorities need not wait for a court to order them to ensure the protection of health workers. Zimbabwe is party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which obligates governments to take steps to realize the right to health including actions necessary for “the prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases.” This includes preventing infection of health workers.

Doctors and nurses working on the front line to contain the spread of the coronavirus need to be properly equipped to safely carry out their critical duties. If health workers are unable to work, the government’s efforts to combat the COVID-19 will be severely undermined, with devastating consequences for people’s access to health care.