“WE are truly apologetic for the chain of events that have taken place over the past few months and we hope that you will have a kind heart to allow the rest of the students to return to class and finish their studies and serve the community,”
BY PHYLLIS MBANJE
Those words were from Maxwell Chimhina, a representative of the department of obstetrics and gynaecology training group during the humiliating meeting with Vice-President and Health minister Constantino Chiwenga some two weeks ago.
“Please find it in your heart to forgive us,” said another.
The humbling apologies from several other young medical students were aired on the Zimbabwean national broadcasting channel in what has commonly been referred to as the night of the long knives.
The young doctors took turns to eat humble pie in front of millions of Zimbabweans who tuned in to watch the news as well as those in the diaspora who also watched the clip that was generously shared on various social media platforms like Twitter.
Authorities from their faculty as well as Health deputy minister John Mangwiro, made spirited intercessions on their behalf pleading with a stone-faced Chiwenga to allow resumption of studies since the doctors had shown remorse and regretted their actions.
This “charade” as described by many well-meaning Zimbabweans, followed an impasse between suspended postgraduate medical students at the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) and the country’s Health ministry.
The students’ crime according to a letter of suspension from UZ dean of medicine and health sciences Noah Mutongoreni, was their participation in an industrial action in which they were merely asking for personal protective equipment, as well as other basic equipment to allow them to carry out their mandate as savers of lives. But their request saw them being banned from public hospitals and lessons were suspended.
It is common knowledge that public hospitals have become death traps operating without basic requirements.
State of affairs in hospitals
Zimbabwe’s once vibrant health delivery system has been disintegrating over the past two decades, largely due to an economic crisis. Lack of medicines and equipment has prompted health workers to leave the country for jobs abroad.
Last year senior doctors and consultants laid bare just how terrible the situation had become.
Who can forget how head of the paediatric unit Azza Mashumba wept openly describing the state of affairs at public hospitals.
“I come to work to certify dead babies.”
Her statement unleashed horrific narrations from other doctors with reports of post surgery patients enduring pain in the absence of basic painkillers or how they were washing used bandages for re-use.
All this was compounded by meagre salaries which could barely sustain the doctors.
This scenario has not changed and fast forward to 2020 it is still the same.
And that is why the Masters class joined the industrial action.
That fateful night
So, what happened that night? Many people were furious and some accused the doctors of selling out their cause.
But did they have options and what would be the implications of not finishing their studies?
When the NewsDay embarked on a mission to find out what happened many shied away and did not want to share.
Previously getting inside information was a piece of cake but many are now scared to speak even where names will not be mentioned.
A large part of those who attended the meeting chose to say: “What is done is done, there are no winners here.”
But a few shared a glimpse of what they went through.
“We converged at the Health ministry offices for the meeting. Already we knew our options were limited. Actually, there were no options,” said one of the doctors who attended the meeting.
The lengthy consultations were one-sided and it dawned on the young doctors that they could never win the war this time.
“Many people have lambasted us for apologising but we had no choice. With only a month to conclude our programme it did not make sense to throw all that away,” said another.
The doctors say no one can ever understand how it felt to apologise for doing the right thing.
“But for the sake of our studies and our future we apologised. That was the hardest thing to do but we were stranded. Being barred from public hospitals would mean that we would not complete our studies and you cannot go anywhere. We were stuck and in a corner.”
For many people the Health ministry is seen now as playing a military role and when the Zimbabwe National Army said it was recruiting over 400 medical doctors, radiographers and pharmacists it set tongues waging.
Recently self-exiled former leader of the doctors association Peter Magombeyi tweeted: “Junior doctors invited to Gweru army barracks for training. Please bring your own blanket.”
Suggesting that medical personnel was in for some radical reorientation.
However, several doctors said it was not a secret that the health sector was being militarised.
In Parliament, Health deputy minister Mangwiro said it was not mandatory for the doctors to join the security forces, but there were vacancies and interested candidates were free to apply.
What is clear, however, is that Zimbabwe’s once vocal doctors are not so keen to speak up anymore, and that is a cause for concern.
This story was first published by the Weekly Digest, an AMH publication.