Harare, Zimbabwe – Samuel Chikengezha, a 35-year-old firefighter, sits on a sofa in his modest home, watching TV while insisting on how he will make ends meet this month.
He has yet to pay school fees for his three children, he said – one of many financial challenges he faces because the money he makes as a first responder in Zimbabwe has not kept pace with inflation for years.
“I survive on loans from friends and family to get by because the money is barely enough,” he told Al Jazeera.
Like many of his colleagues, Chikengezha believes the solution to his financial problems is to leave Zimbabwe for a better paying job abroad.
“I want to leave the country. Each of us wants to go to other countries. We’re all in waiting mode, really,” he said. “As soon as an opportunity arises, I leave.”
Zimbabwe’s economy was already on its knees before the pandemic hit, and COVID-19 has only made matters worse.
Wages are stagnating, foreign currency is scarce and the purchasing power of the Zimbabwean dollar continues to erode, with annual inflation exceeding 60% at the end of last year. Manufacturing is weak and poverty is rising with the prices of everything, including basic necessities like food and fuel.
Today, economic carnage threatens essential public services by triggering a massive brain drain in critical sectors.
Harare City Council, which runs the Zimbabwean capital’s fire service, said the city lost 125 firefighters last year.
Council spokesman Innocent Ruwende told Al Jazeera they had left to seek more lucrative jobs abroad, mainly in Gulf states in the Middle East.
“Our firefighters are in demand because they are highly trained,” he said.
The lure of higher pay, better conditions
The lure of a more lucrative and more stable salary overseas is a tempting proposition for Chikengezha, who currently earns $200 a month.
“Entry salaries [abroad] are between $1,300 and $1,500,” he said.
It’s not just firefighters looking for bigger paychecks. The brain drain is also disrupting the health sector in Zimbabwe. With the growing demand for health workers around the world, Zimbabwe lost some 2,000 medical professionals last year, according to state media. This is more than double the exodus rate of 2020.
Zimbabwe Nurses Association president Enock Dongo told Al Jazeera that poor pay and poor working conditions are forcing more nurses to seek positions outside the troubled southern African nation, where nurses earn less than $200 a month.
“The salaries of nurses in Zimbabwe are too low. Even 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 has made conditions for nurses in Zimbabwe “really dangerous”.
The public outcry
As the number of firefighters dwindles, a public outcry ensues, blaming first responders for poor service.
In November, Harare firefighters came under fire for a penthouse fire that claimed the life of investment banker Douglas Munatsi.
Acting fire chief Clever Mafoti defended the firefighters’ performance, saying trees prevented the deployment of aerial ladders to rescue Munatsi on the ninth floor.
And while Mafoti acknowledges that an exodus of firefighters is having an impact, he insists the service is still there for the people of Harare when it matters.
“Our ability to perform our duties has diminished or diminished, but we are still capable of performing our duties,” he told Al Jazeera. “We haven’t reached a stage where we failed to do our duty and just let people’s properties burn to the ground.”
But Mafoti said financial constraints were taking their toll beyond staffing shortages – especially with aging fire trucks.
“[The city] the council has promised us vehicles, but as you know that’s normally a process,” he said.
On the health front, pregnant women in Glen View and Budiriro, two high-density suburbs south of Harare, no longer have antenatal care at specialist clinics because there are no nurses in the staff to provide these services.
“Specially trained nurses such as antenatal nurses have left to seek better opportunities elsewhere,” Harare City Council spokesman Ruwende said, adding that he was looking for partners to provide US dollar funding to hire increasingly scarce talent.
“People prefer to earn US dollars and they turn down our job offers,” he said.