When they get sick, some Zimbabwean leaders previously went abroad in search of the best treatment money can buy; ousted President Robert Mugabe died in a hospital in Singapore in 2019.

With travel curtailed by the coronavirus, that luxury is not available, exposing the elite to a truth the majority has long known: Zimbabwe’s health system has been crumbling for years and is now struggling to cope with a spike in COVID-19 cases.

Anger among overwhelmed medics is adding to broader public dissatisfaction with President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who pledged an economic revival after he took over from Mugabe following a coup in 2017.

“It’s a rude awakening to the government and to the politicians,” said Norman Matara, secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights.

“If you have decades of continuously destroying your public health system, and then now you have a pandemic, you cannot then overturn that decay … in one year or in six months.”

Zimbabwe’s economy was in crisis even before the coronavirus struck, after years of hyperinflation, acute shortages of foreign exchange and power outages.

Now it must cope with a surge in the pandemic. More than half of Zimbabwe’s 32 646 confirmed COVID-19 cases and two-thirds of its 1 160 deaths were recorded in January alone, according to a Reuters tally.

Vice President Constantino Chiwenga said on Friday it was likely that more transmissible variants of COVID-19 were now circulating in Zimbabwe and the government was investigating.

He said a stricter one-month lockdown that was re-introduced on January 2 and includes a dusk-to-dawn curfew and shutting land borders, would be extended by another two weeks.

Among those who have died in the last few days were two cabinet ministers, a retired general and other high-ranking officials. The two ministers were treated in a private clinic.

A government spokesman sparked uproar on social media this week when he suggested in a tweet that the deaths of ruling party officials may have been the work of “medical assassins”.

He has since apologised and deleted his tweets after health workers pointed out that they had been risking their lives for months to treat patients without adequate protective equipment, ventilators and other vital supplies.

Zimbabwe begins process of acquiring COVID-19 vaccines:

‘Mask up, stay at home’

The government says it is doing the best it can with limited resources in an economy that has been in recession since 2019.

Agnes Mahomva, the national COVID-19 taskforce coordinator, told Reuters that Zimbabwe was equipped to handle the second wave and that the government was emphasising prevention after tightening lockdown rules earlier this month.

“We expected this surge because people had relaxed. Our hospitals are adequately prepared to handle patients but we continue to say ‘mask up and stay at home’. It is the best way to beat COVID-19,” Mahomva said.