Her blue nurse’s uniform still on her back, Virginia Mutsamwira picks up the recipe of the day in the grocery store she keeps in her house near the capital Harare, before going to feed chickens and rabbits: given her salary, she doesn’t I have no choice and she multiplies odd jobs.

Virginia, 52, has just returned from a grueling 12-hour shift at a clinic in Cold Comfort, a poor neighborhood near the capital Harare. She treats there, according to her, four times more patients than the ideal gauge.

“The number of nurses is very insufficient,” she said, plunging down on her brown sofa. “It’s exhausting. And frustrating, because we can’t offer quality care.”

Soon, she will follow the example of the nearly 1,800 nurses – more than 10% of the staff of the country’s public hospitals – who emigrated last year, mainly to Great Britain. She must feed her family of eight and “ensure (her) retirement”, she explains to AFP.

Virginia has already passed the English test required to obtain a visa in the United Kingdom, where wages are ten times higher than the 190 euros per month paid on average in Zimbabwe. Since Brexit, immigration rules have been relaxed to attract nurses and caregivers.

The Zimbabwean health system is in agony. Like the country’s economy, weighed down for ten years by a serious crisis. Food, electricity, fuel, everything is missing. Those who remain chain the hours, to fill the gaps in the schedules.

Josephine Marare has worked for twenty years at the Sally Mugabe public hospital, one of the largest in the country. “We are constantly overwhelmed because a lot of nurses are leaving,” she laments.

The chronic under-equipment completes to break his morale. “Imagine working in a hospital where there are no bandages, water or basic medications like painkillers,” the nurse says. If she finds the money for a visa, she will leave, “like the others”.

This exodus is prompting new requests for passports. In the capital, before dawn, queues form in front of the administrative buildings that deliver them.

– Breathless –

Some of the most qualified nurses accept junior positions, as long as it’s abroad, says Simbarashe Tafirenyika, president of a nurses’ union. “A carer in the UK earns a lot more than a nurse here,” he explains.

The main cause of this exodus is “low wages”, he underlines. “People have to pay school fees, put food on the table. If someone has an opportunity, they leave.”

Questioned by AFP, the government’s Health Service Board, which rates and appoints health personnel in the public, recognizes that the departure of so many nurses is damaging the quality of care. “Losing experienced employees is always a challenge,” notes Livingstone Mashange, its spokesperson.

Their website opens with a picture of nurses and a bold message: “We’re hiring.” Recruitment and training have been launched. Retirees have returned to work.

In Britain, the Covid pandemic created additional demand for nurses, especially as Brexit had drastically reduced the number of those coming from Europe.

When Jason Mutambara, 45, received his first pay, the equivalent of 3,200 euros in England, he had the impression of “winning the lottery”.

“We are not even thinking of coming back for the moment,” says the nurse. He left a year ago and can now easily pay for his four children’s schooling.

Britain should continue to hire in the years to come. According to a report published in June by the Health Foundation think tank, its health system (NIH) is facing a staff shortage of 93,000 employees. Of which some 42% are nurses.