After training as a nurse at a local hospital, Teurai Matsiva (24), was certain that her long-cherished dream of becoming some kind of latter-day Florence Nightingale was now within her sights.
The two years of labour at nursing school, keeping vigil with owls while studying and pouring so much of herself into her training would now finally pay-off. But then, the heartbreak set in.
“When the government froze all posts, it was heartbreaking, especially considering the sacrifices I made during training,” said Matsiva, who now earns a living through buying and selling second-hand clothes. “It has all gone to waste.”
Matsiva thought after her release from bond, things would get easier as she could secure employment in the private sector or in neighbouring countries where local nurses are in demand.
Government had a policy where all nurses trained in public health institutions would be bonded to government hospitals for a year to curb brain drain and ensure the country at least reaped benefits from the huge investments made in training nurses.
The lucrative private sector has always been a strong lure for health professionals, most of whom earn a pittance in the public sector.
The bonding system, however, became irrelevant following the blanket freeze on all civil service employment by Treasury, struggling to cut on government expenditure through trimming the bloated workforce.
“What I find surprising is that there is a shortage of health workers, but we are doing other things because the government can’t employ us,” said Matsiva.
According to the executive chairman of the Health Services Board (HSB), Dr Lovemore Mbengeranwa, the shortage of medical staff in the country is so critical there is need for health workers to be exempted from the freeze.
The ideal number required would be 47 000 for the whole health sector.
“In 2010, we sent bids of 5 516 to Treasury, but we were not successful and we resubmitted again in 2011, but we were still not successful,” said Mbengeranwa.
Statistics from the HSB show that in 2010, only 374 nurses had been employed from 1 516 trained while 607 were absorbed last year from 1 044 who trained. Currently, 1 579 nurses are unemployed.
“We feel the health sector should be exempted from the freeze because it’s key to economic advancement because people will start wondering where our priorities are. People are dying of HIV and Aids, cholera and typhoid among other diseases,” he said.
Bulawayo Progressive Residents’ Association (BPRA) information officer Nokholo Mhluzani recently said government’s self-professed inability to pay nurses who graduated in 2010 and 2011 was a mark of insincerity and would jeopardise patients in local hospitals.
“This assertion, which amounts to acceptance by the government that it is abdicating its duties is in bad taste, especially in view of the fact that it is premised on the spurious excuse that the government has no resources to pay nurses,” he said.
“The move paves way for nurses in the country to seek greener pastures in neighbouring countries and puts at risk the lives of the residents who have to go to ill-equipped and under-manned hospitals.”
A member of the portfolio committee on health, before whom Mbengeranwa recently appeared, Kwekwe Central MP Blessing Chebundo (MDC-T) said the manpower situation in the health sector was unacceptable and smacked of a conspiracy to undermine human life.
“The shortfall shows that there is a conspiracy in government where people don’t respect the sanctity of life and development. This is not acceptable at all,” he said.
Mbengeranwa said the health sector was “a labour-intensive industry” thus the lack of manpower was a cause for concern.
“A lot needs to be done to address the human resource challenges, and the 2011 — 2015 Strategic Plan is aimed at, among other things, addressing the critical human resource issues,” he said.
HSB board member Dr Phineas Makurira said traditionally, Zimbabwe has always been a benchmark in terms of quality health personnel in the region and the current scenario allowed other countries to pounce and exploit their skill and expertise.
“Our health workers are very competitive. Put them on the market and people will just grab them because they are competent,” he said.
He said it was an anomaly that there was such a huge investment in training personnel who ended up enriching other countries’ health systems.
Beginning in 2000, as the economy took a nosedive, medical personnel — especially nurses – joined the great trek to the Diaspora where their services were in high demand, made more attractive by an attractive remuneration package.
Many new graduates left for countries such as the UK, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa in search of better fortunes.
This forced government to introduce bonding in 2007 to retain the medical professionals so that they could service the country’s health system after having been trained by taxpayers’ money.
Social worker Gabriel Masenda said it was important for government to engage countries in which locally trained nurses are now working and come up with mechanisms to “unlock value”.
“Ideally, the country should benefit somehow from these professionals because they were trained here at a cost to the government,” he said. “If government is unable to absorb them all into the system, then why not sign memoranda of understanding (MoUs) with the countries that are now benefiting from this important human resource?”
According to Mbengeranwa, under the current system, the country is exporting nurses to countries with whom Zimbabwe has no bilateral agreement such that even if the professionals are abused in those countries, they will have no recourse in case of unfair labour practices.
The World Health Organisation’s Draft Code of Practice on the International Recruitment of Health Personnel spells out guiding principles and voluntary international standards for recruitment of health workers and discourages unethical practices, while promoting an equitable balance of interests among health workers, source countries and destination countries.