THE catastrophic situation in public health facilities has played out for too long with no plausible solution in sight, well until the Higher Life Foundation offered an olive branch albeit for only six months. For over four months, patients were turned away as the facilities grappled to stay open in the absence of doctors.
Incapacitation/ downing tools
On September 3 last year, doctors affiliated to the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association (Zhda) led by Peter Magombeyi downed their tools citing incapacitation brought about by a myriad of grievances which included remuneration.
In a letter, the doctors said, “This letter serves as a notice that starting from the 3rd of September this year, doctors at Mpilo, Bulawayo United, Parirenyatwa Group, Harare and Chitungwiza Central Hospital are not going to report for work. We simply do not have the means to continue coming to work because the salary is not sufficient.”
However, the government tried to negotiate with doctors offering a 60% pay rise but they notified their employer of their intention to embark on a job action after rejecting the offer which they termed meagre and unable to cater for their basic needs.
This was to mark one of the longest industrial actions ever carried out by medical personnel in the country. It not only exposed government’s weak commitment to its workers, but also drove the public health facilities further into the doldrums.
What were their issues?
Besides having their salaries pegged in US dollars, the doctors were also unhappy about their working conditions. For years they soldiered on with meagre resources and equipment. As the situation deteriorated, the hospitals no longer had basic drugs like painkillers, latex gloves and even bandages.
In a meeting with Health minister Obadiah Moyo, the doctors narrated how they were watching patients die as they could no longer contain the situation. Horrifying tales of babies dying and used bandages being re-used were told, but the government did not step up and finally the doctors said they could no longer come to work .
Doctors have been downing tools for years over the same issues and each time the health delivery system was further compromised with the patients bearing the brunt of the standoff. This perennial situation has caused what many are now terming a “soft genocide” with one unfortunate incident where a woman died together with her child while in labour at Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals.
However the situation remained basically the same, with largely the army and some retired doctors stepping in to assist with services.
The government, with regards to the strike and the dire situation, has not been very forthcoming. It went as far as using repressive State means to try and repress the strikes. Government imposed a ban on the strike by nurses amid reports they were State agents who would call and threaten doctors that in case they went ahead with the strike they would face the wrath of the employer but should instead accept whatever increment they were being given.
The Health Services Board was ruthless in its approach and went as far as firing all the striking nurses and doctors, accusing them of not being patriotic enough.
In-between, there was the usual threats, and the dramatic abduction of the doctors leader Magombeyi. All this was done to cower the doctors into submission, but they remained resolute.
Higher Life Foundation offer
Then the Higher Life Foundation offered to help. Initially the doctors rejected the offer citing government interference. This clearly showed the level of mistrust which is detrimental to any form of development.
Government has earned a bad reputation of either backtracking or totally refusing to accept responsibility. Which is exactly why this situation repeats itself over and over.
But now the doctors have gone ahead to accept the six months fellowship offer which was put on the table again by the Higher Life Foundation.
With over 900 doctors applying for the fellowship, this has exposed the government’s failures to come to terms with its employees.
According to Econet Wireless founder, Strive Masiyiwa the fellowship was focused on ensuring sustainable and resilient communities and that could only be achieved through doctors offering quality healthcare to patients.
The offer stipulated that senior consultants for a duration of six months would acquire a non-negotiable monthly subsistence allowance of $10 000 and junior consultants also for the same period would get a non-negotiable monthly subsistence allowance of $7 500.
Other benefits consisted of a VAYA carpool voucher for use on normal working days and would help with easy access to hospitals while on call. This offer comes in as a bridging gap to try and reconcile the doctors with their employers.
However, this is a period where government is supposed to come up with sound policies on how to restore the health sector as its arrogance will ensure that this opportunity will be in vain.
After six months then what? The situation may improve for now and offer respite to patients, but this is just a charade because the underlying causes will still be there come end of fellowship.
What is very apparent to all is that there is need for massive funding to the health sector, which is one of the critical areas in the country. Not many people can afford international medical care like the government officials.
Prioritising expenditure will also save a lot of resources which can be re-directed to critical sectors like health.
The government also needs to drop its arrogant and militant response to the grievances by health workers, and employees in general, which are all pertinent – and solve the crisis once and for all.
Lorraine Muromo is a journalist. She writes in her personal capacity.