When vicious winds and relentless rainfall barreled into Edgar Meque’s hospital in the early afternoon of March 14, no fewer than 10 mothers laid in the maternity ward with their newborn babies as the roof began to collapse.
A stone’s throw from the darkness of the Indian Ocean, the Ponta Gea health centre in the central Mozambican city of Beira was but another obstacle on Cyclone Idai’s path of destruction as it made landfall.
With little time to act, Mr Meque and his maternity ward team rushed to get the most vulnerable out of harm’s way.
“When the cyclone began we decided to transfer the mothers from this building to another building with concrete walls,” he said. “We were scared. Here in the maternity ward it wasn’t [just] one life. It was two, three lives for each mother.”
Racing to evacuate the mothers and babies, Mr Meque feared that as the cyclone worsened, the hospital would soon “be filled with injuries and a lot of patients” from around the city and the wider province of Sofala. The facility already provides for up to 30,000 patients a month.
By about 7pm, the roof blew off the maternity ward. The women and children were safe but traumatised. “They thought they were going to die and lose their new born babies,” Mr Meque said.
When some of the women went into labour, staff juggled cyclone clean-up with the delivery of babies. One team handled the pregnant mothers, another dealt with the cyclone wounded in another area of the hospital.
The next day, staff struggled to enter the facility because fallen trees and downed branches blocking the entrances. Once in, they discharged those mothers who were able to leave in order to “make space,” Mr Meque said.
A week later, water an inch deep sloshes underfoot in the hospital corridors. Patients wait in a reception area where the smell of damp and disinfectant lingers. Upstairs, sunlight shines through holes left left by blown off sheets of corrugated iron.
Around 30 hospitals were either majorly damaged or totally destroyed, Rui Costa, the manager of Mozambique’s national disaster fund, told The National. At least 17 lost their roofs, Doctors Without Borders said, and the operating theatre at Beira’s central hospital – Mozambique’s second biggest – sustained serious damage. Victims are now receiving initial treatment at 96 emergency centres, many of them makeshift schools.
Ponta Gea is operating at reduced capacity and still relies on generators for power.
The ward for newborns is now filled with debris from a collapsed ceiling. The ward’s flooded halls are lined by dirty mattresses and pillows, green medical covers and stray metal carts. Black bin bags have been used to try and cover the damaged ceiling, which has been ripped open to revealing wooden rafters.
Before an average of 14 babies were born on the ward each day, according to Mr Meque, its 27-year-old director. No mothers can give birth here currently, he said.
Of even more pressing concern is the prospect of an epidemic caused by a lack of aid and access to medical care for hundreds of thousands displaced and affected by Idai. It is a situation that the United Nations has called a “race against time”.
“The cyclone was in some ways just the first step in this emergency,” said Charlie Yaxley, UNHCR’s global spokesperson for Africa. “We are now entering a second phase where there is just as high a risk to their lives and their wellbeing because of the difficulties of getting supplies to those in need.”
Five cases of cholera were announced in Mozambique on Wednesday, the first confirmed instances of the waterborne disease that can prove fatal if untreated. Thousands have been living for weeks now in flooded areas without access to clean water.
More cases of cholera are expected, Mozambique’s National Director of Medical Assistance Ussene Isse said on Wednesday, as there have been 2,700 cases of acute watery diarrhoea, one symptom of the disease.
The Mozambican government has already set up a cholera treatment centre at Beira’s main hospital. There is no such facility at Ponta Gea, and diarrhea cases are increasing.
“Now, because of the cyclone, there’s no water, there’s no power, we have cases of diarrhea,” Mr Meque said. “It will be difficult but we need to decrease the cases of diarrhea.”
With Ponta Gea rendered inoperable, hospital staff are still calculating the cost of a new roof, laboratory, maternity ward and offices, as well as replacing medical equipment and buying additional medication. They also need new bedding, sheets and blankets for patients.
“We basically lost everything,” he said. “What makes me sad is we don’t have a place to take care of our patients.”
But, for the maternity ward’s young director, the work has only just begun.
“Everyone gets scared,” he said, “but sometimes you have to rid yourself of the fear, and don those overalls with which we took that oath.”