PRESIDENT Emmerson Mnangagwa has been forced to report for duty, hardly a week into his annual leave, as the crisis in the country continues to deepen, with his deputy Constantino Chiwenga failing to resolve the doctors’ month-long strike, amid other challenges.
BY EVERSON MUSHAVA/KUDZI MUCHENJEKWA
Mnangagwa was back at his office yesterday following a public outcry from some sections of society, who questioned his decision to go on holiday before resolving doctors and other civil servants’ salary grievances, in addition to the worsening economic crisis triggered by the runaway inflation.
A post on the Information ministry’s Twitter handle on Tuesday announced Mnangagwa’s return to duty, barely a week after he started his annual leave.
“I have cut short my leave to be in immediate and active consultation with the Acting President [Constantino Chiwenga] in resolving the situation in the health sector,” Mnangagwa was quoted as saying.
Information deputy minister Energy Mutodi confirmed the development yesterday, saying besides attending to the doctors’ issue, Mnangagwa would also take time to deal with other matters that Chiwenga could not handle alone.
“The President is on leave and will only be in office on January 9, but between [Tuesday] night and tomorrow [today], he will intermittently be in office to attend to issues that cannot be handled by the Acting President. These include making financial commitments and receiving ambassadors,” Mutodi said.
Asked why Mnangagwa could not just delegate Chiwenga to handle the pressing matters, Mutodi said mobile network at the President’s Kwekwe farm was sometimes a challenge, hence the decision to be physically in office to attend to the issues.
“The rumour circulating that he does not trust his deputy is not true. That he is coming to deal with the doctors’ strike is incomplete information,” Mutodi added.
Doctors downed tools on December 1 before Mnangagwa appointed Chiwenga to take charge of the negotiations, which, however, broke down as a result of the latter’s alleged poor
negotiating skills, forcing senior doctors to join the strike in solidarity with their over 500 junior colleagues who were suspended by government last week.
The senior doctors, who share the same grievances as their juniors, in a statement issued yesterday said they had become overwhelmed by the workload and were no longer confident they could discharge duties properly without compromising the patients and their safety.
They said they were also withdrawing their services until an agreement is reached. The doctors are demanding payment of their salaries in United States dollars and to be given car loans.
They also want government to buy enough medical equipment and drugs, among other demands.
The suspended doctors, who had their December salaries suspended, are due to appear for disciplinary hearings tomorrow.
But Chiwenga on Tuesday urged the Health Services Board (HSB) to punish the striking doctors, accusing them of negotiating in bad faith by not returning to work when government had compromised and met most of their demands, except two.
In a statement, Chiwenga said government was concerned that the strike had been politicised and vowed that the administration would not back down and pay any of its workers in foreign currency.
He accused the doctors of being insensitive to the lives of citizens.
“Government notes with concern the political overtones which the labour issue has now assumed, including attempts by striking doctors to appeal to constituencies which have nothing to do with health delivery or their employment contracts,” Chiwenga said.
“In the meantime, government will not allow any demonstrations at medical facilities, whose purpose is to treat patients and ensure their full recovery.”
He added: “For the avoidance of doubt, government will not remunerate any of its workforce in United States dollars.
“The hard-earned foreign currency will be committed to, among other areas, importing essential medicines for hospitals and clinics, as well as to facilitate the recovery of the economy, in line with the Transitional Stabilisation Programme.”
Chiwenga said government was committed to fulfilling the commitments made to all health workers, with an undertaking to review the conditions of service for all workers in the public sector within the second quarter of this year, in line with the budget cycle.
Government, Chiwenga said, would also request the HSB to take appropriate action against the striking doctors, whose conduct has been declared unlawful by the courts and in violation of the international practice that doctors should not abandon work, but, instead, “bring forward their grievances while making sure loss of life or unnecessary pain and suffering is avoided”.
“By going against the Hippocratic Oath, the striking doctors have shown their callous insensitivity to human life, pain and suffering,” Chiwenga said.
Government, he added, would make announcements in the coming days on how it intended to stabilise the health sector in the long run.
The Acting President said government would also continue to import essential medicines and accessories vital to effective service delivery.
But Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors’ Association secretary-general Mthabisi Anele Bhebhe yesterday said their members would not be cowed into submission before their demands have been met in full.
“Those two demands that have not been met are those that save lives. Hospitals need drugs, equipment and the doctors need salaries to go to work. We want to go back to work, but what remains is what is critical,” Bhebhe said.
“We met today, and the enthusiasm to continue with the strike until something tangible comes out is high. It is game on until our demands are resolved. All the government compromises should be written down.”
Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights treasurer Norman Matara also accused Chiwenga of negotiating in bad faith, and warned that government’s refusal to further engage them would trigger brain-drain in the health sector.
“I feel the heavy-handedness approach taken by VP Chiwenga, which includes threatening workers with unspecified action, will result in the migration of health professionals to other countries.
We are already facing a critical human resources challenge in the health sector, with a doctor-to-patient ratio of more than 1:25 000, if you factor in junior doctors, against a WHO [World Health Organisation] recommended ratio of 1:600, ” Matara said.
“Further, threatening these workers, who already face a myriad of challenges such as working without adequate protective material, low salaries and lack of medicines and equipment to use, will only make the situation worse.”