Zimbabwe: Dominican nurse writes: ‘we need food not questionnaires’

Dominican Missionary Sister Patricia Walsh has written this letter to protest over the bureaucracy that is holding up much-needed food and medicines to the suffering people of Zimbabwe.

Over the past weeks we read one statement after another about the millions who are facing starvation here in the country. We read how the UN/WFP more or less know the numbers of people who are hungry and in many cases on the verge of starvation, we are informed about the amount of money that has so far been collected, the food available and how much more is needed until the next harvest. Great that all this information is available.

Sadly for some of us in the communities all of this information is only a cause of frustration. One of our mission hospitals – a large hospital with one of the largest HIV and AIDS outreach programme in the country applied to WFP and were told that food is only being supplied to “vulnerable people” at his time and not to institutions.

At this particular hospital the staff threatened to go on strike because all of them and their families are all hungry, and they are supposed to look after hungry people. The large orphan population of over 4000 that the hospital is caring for is also hungry, some malnourished, some admitted to hospital with kwashiorkor and yet these are not “vulnerable people” – where are the institutions supposed to get the food if not through such organizations as WFP and Christian Care?

Personally I have a problem with the selection by WFP and their partners Christian Care here in Zimbabwe, in how the criteria of “vulnerable people” are decided on. Yes, there must be accountability, there must be transparency, under no circumstances must any particular group – either political or religious be favored in the distribution of food.

Here in Harare at the moment we have many people who are on ARVs (anti-retroviral therapy) to treat their HIV infection. Over one thousand of these are getting medication from a large reputable clinic which has a detailed record of the history of each person attending the clinic. Over the past months they have observed a very clear deterioration in the health of many of the people, almost all complaining of hunger. In order to identify whether these people fall into the “vulnerable category” or not they have to be interviewed (by a NON medical, non nursing person) who classifies the person on the “Wealth Ranking Criteria” form and then on the “Vulnerability Scoring Guide” another form. Individuals are meant to declare how many are in their households, how may are disabled, how many are chronically ill etc – If I am on the point of starvation I will give you the answers that I think might give me access to food and this will not necessarily be the truth. This is only the registration procedure, when will the food come even I am lucky enough to be considered “vulnerable”. Why this expensive, time wasting exercise when thousand of starving people are already on the records of clinics and various church groups.

Yesterday we were told of scores of teenagers from three of the local high density areas who have discontinued taking their ARVs because it makes them hungry and they have no food to eat- what is the future of these young people? Treatment interruptions will inevitably lead to a resistant HIV virus for which we have almost no treatment options and when available this medication is 10 times the price of the first line treatments.

How does the head of a child-headed household in a high density area get into contact with the people who have the questionnaires? – in most cases they have no chance. This past week we have visited on a daily basis the high density areas where most of the unemployed people live. We have had people in their hundreds coming to our doors pleading for food. These are not beggars they are very hungry people on the point of starvation. If they had a choice they would not be begging but would be providing food for themselves and their families. Please whoever is responsible for all the bureaucracy we plead with you to start getting the food out of the warehouses to the people who are hungry, please do not wait until we have mass starvation – a situation that is rapidly developing. We have to find US$80 to pay for a hardboard coffin (the cheapest on the market) when people die – let us stop buying the coffins and distribute the food.

Let´s stop cutting down the trees for the paper for the questionnaires and the coffins – let´s use the firewood to cook the food and stop the deaths.

For the past 35 years I have worked as a nurse here in Zimbabwe, many of those years spent in rural areas where we experienced severe droughts but until now I have not experienced the degree of hunger/starvation that I am seeing today. Please get the food out from behind the locked doors now. Every day spent asking questions as to whether I am hungry or not is a day when we will lose hundreds of vulnerable people because of hunger.

Patricia Walsh

Dominican Missionary Sisters in Zimbabwe.

You can read more about these issues at www.solidaritypeacetrust.org