Harare, Zimbabwe – Samuel Chikengezha, a 35-year-old fireman, sits on a sofa in his modest home, staring at the television set while he stresses over how he’ll make ends meet this month.
He has not yet paid school fees for his three children, he said – one of many financial challenges he faces because the money he pulls in as a first responder in Zimbabwe has not kept pace with inflation for years.
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“I survive on borrowings from friends and family to get by as the money is barely enough,” he told Al Jazeera.
Like many of his colleagues, Chikengezha reckons the solution to his financial woes is to leave Zimbabwe for a higher-paying job abroad.
“I want to leave the country. Every one of us wants to leave for other countries. We are all in waiting mode, really,” he said. “Once an opportunity presents itself, I am out.”
Zimbabwe’s economy was already on its knees before the pandemic struck, and COVID-19 has only made things worse.
Salaries are stagnant, foreign currency is in short supply, and the purchasing power of the Zimbabwean dollar continues to erode, with annual inflation topping 60 percent at the close of last year. Manufacturing is low, and poverty is rising along with prices for everything, including essentials like food and fuel.
Now the economic carnage is threatening essential public services by triggering a massive brain drain in critical sectors.
Harare City Council, which runs the Zimbabwean capital’s fire department, said the city lost 125 firefighters last year.
Council spokesperson Innocent Ruwende told Al Jazeera that they left to chase more lucrative jobs overseas, mostly in Middle East Gulf states.
“Our firefighters are in demand because they are highly trained,” he said.
The draw of higher pay, better conditions
The allure of a more lucrative, more stable payday abroad is an enticing proposition for Chikengezha, who currently brings home $200 a month.
“Entry salaries [abroad] are somewhere in the region of $1,300-$1,500,” he said.
It’s not just firefighters who are chasing bigger paycheques. Brain drain is also roiling Zimbabwe’s healthcare sector. With the pandemic increasing demand for healthcare workers around the globe, Zimbabwe lost some 2,000 healthcare professionals last year, according to state media. That is more than double the exodus rate of 2020.
The President of the Zimbabwe Nurses Association, Enock Dongo, told Al Jazeera that poor remuneration and working conditions are compelling more nurses to seek positions outside of the troubled Southern African nation, where nurses earn less than $200 a month.
“The salaries of nurses in Zimbabwe are too low. Even when compared to peers in the Southern African region, Zimbabwean nurses are the least paid,” Dongo told Al Jazeera.
He also noted that a 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 has ensued, accusing the first responders of poor services.
In November, Harare’s fire department was heavily criticised over a penthouse blaze that cost the life of investment banker Douglas Munatsi.
Acting Chief Fire Officer Clever Mafoti defended the performance of the fire department, saying trees had prevented aerial ladders from being deployed 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 counts.
“Our ability to execute our duties has been ailing or diminishing but we are still able to fulfill our duties,” he told Al Jazeera. “We have not reached a stage where we have failed to discharge our duties and just let people’s properties burn to the ground.”
But Mafoti said financial constraints are taking a toll beyond personnel shortages – specifically with ageing fire trucks.
“[The city] council has promised us some vehicles, but as you know, this is normally a process,” he said.
On the healthcare front, pregnant women in Glen View and Budiriro, both high-density suburbs south of Harare, no longer have antenatal care at specialty clinics because there are no nurses on staff to provide those services.
“Specially trained nurses such as antenatal ones have left to look for better opportunities elsewhere,” said Harare City Council spokesperson Ruwende, adding that he’s looking for partners to provide funding in United States dollars to hire increasingly scarce talent.
“People prefer to earn US dollars and they are refusing our offers for jobs,” he said.