Harare, Zimbabwe – Samuel Chikingsa, a 35-year-old firefighter, sits on a sofa in his modest home, staring at the TV as he stresses how he’s making ends meet this month.
He said he has yet to pay school fees for his three children – one of his many financial challenges because the money he makes as a first responder in Zimbabwe has not kept pace with inflation for years.
“I live on borrowing from friends and family so I can get by because the money is hardly enough,” he told Al Jazeera.
Like many of his colleagues, Chikengeza believes the solution to his financial problems 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 all on hold, really.” “As soon as the opportunity arises, I’m outside.”
Zimbabwe’s economy was already on its knees before the pandemic hit, and COVID-19 has only made matters worse.
Salaries are stagnant, foreign exchange is scarce, and the purchasing power of the Zimbabwean dollar continues to erode, with annual inflation hitting 60 percent at the end of last year. Manufacturing is low and poverty is on the rise with the price of everything, including necessities like food and fuel, rising.
Now the economic carnage threatens essential public services by unleashing a massive brain drain in vital sectors.
Harare City Council, which runs the fire department in the Zimbabwean capital, said the city lost 125 firefighters last year.
Council spokesman Innocent Rwindi told Al Jazeera that they left to look for more lucrative jobs abroad, mostly in the Gulf states in the Middle East.
“Our firefighters are wanted because they are highly trained,” he said.
Withdraw higher salaries and better terms
The lure of a more lucrative and stable payday abroad is an attractive proposition for Chikengezha, who currently makes $200 a month.
“Entry salaries [abroad] Somewhere in the region between $1,300 and $1,500.
It’s not just firefighters chasing bigger paychecks. The brain drain is also disrupting the health care sector in Zimbabwe. With the pandemic increasing demand for healthcare workers around the world, Zimbabwe lost about 2,000 healthcare professionals last year, according to state media. This is more than double the immigration rate for 2020.
The head of the Zimbabwe Nurses Association, Enoch Dongo, told Al Jazeera that poor pay and working conditions are forcing more nurses to seek jobs outside the troubled South African country, where nurses earn less than $200 a month.
“The salaries of nurses in Zimbabwe are very low. Even when compared to their peers in the southern African region, Zimbabwean nurses are the lowest paid,” Dongo told Al Jazeera.
He also noted that the lack of personal protective equipment made conditions for nurses in Zimbabwe “really dangerous”.
The people’s cry
As the number of firefighters dwindled, a popular protest ensued accusing first responders of poor services.
In November, the Harare Fire Department came under fire over a penthouse fire that killed investment banker Douglas Monatsi.
Acting Fire Officer Cleaver Mavuti defended the fire department’s performance, saying trees prevented the deployment of air ramps to rescue Monazi on the ninth floor.
While Mavuti acknowledges that the mass firefighter exodus is having an impact, he insists that service is still there for Harare residents when it matters.
“Our ability to carry out our duties is sick or diminished, but we are still able to fulfill our duties,” he told Al Jazeera. “We have not reached a point where we have failed in our duties and left people’s property to burn to the ground.”
But Mavuti said the financial constraints are causing losses that outweigh the staff shortage – specifically as the fire engines advance.
“[The city] We’ve promised the council some vehicles, but you know, that’s a practical habit,” he said.
On the healthcare front, pregnant women in Glen View and Buderiro, both high-density suburbs south of Harare, are no longer receiving antenatal care in specialist clinics because there are no nurses on staff to provide these services.
“Specially trained nurses like antenatal nurses have left to seek better opportunities elsewhere,” said a Rwandan city council spokesperson, adding that it was looking for partners to provide US dollar funding to hire increasingly scarce talent.
“People would rather earn US dollars and reject our offers of jobs,” he said.