BY SILAS NKALA/ PHYLLIS MBANJE/BRENNA MATENDERE
JUNIOR doctors have threatened to go on strike, joining the industrial action by nurses that started last week citing deteriorating working conditions, which will negatively affect the country’s battle against the growing coronavirus pandemic.
Nurses have been picketing since Wednesday last week, demanding salaries in United States dollars after rejecting an offer to hike their earnings by 50% and US$75 allowances.
They said soaring inflation, which is the world’s highest at 785,55% as of May, has drastically reduced the value of their Zimdollar salaries and has seen prices of goods rising almost daily.
The situation is reminiscent of the hyperinflation era of 2008, when prices changed several times daily to keep up with inflation, which eventually topped 500 billion percent.
Junior doctors could soon join the strike, with officials saying they were “in a similar situation” to that of nurses.
“We struggle to get fuel when we are on call. Many stations are selling in US dollars, so we are now incapacitated,” an official with an association representing the doctors told NewsDay, but preferred anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Last year, the doctors went on strike for over four months over pay and poor working conditions, paralysing the country’s healthcare sector.
The strike only ended in January this year when they accepted an offer by Econet founder and telecoms billionaire Strive Masiyiwa, who set up a $100 million fund to pay up to 2 000 doctors a subsistence allowance of US$300 a month at the time to help them with transport and living costs.
The programme was for six months.
Nurses say they will not return to work until their demands are met, a situation confirmed by Mpilo Central Hospital acting clinical director Xolani Ndlovu yesterday.
“Most of the qualified nurses are at home, they did not report for duty. They vowed that they will not come back until government addresses their demands. We only have a skeleton staff most of them being nurses on probation. We also have doctors and some have already started threatening to join the strike soon,” Ndlovu said, adding the hospital was dealing with emergencies only.
Speaking to NewsDay yesterday, Zimbabwe Professional Nurses Union president Robert Chiduku said the health workers would not bow down to pressure.
“We heard reports from our distressed colleagues in Mutare and other parts of the country, who are being victimised for engaging in the strike. Our message to government is that you do not satisfy hunger of your child by whipping him or her. You simply attend to the needs and provide the food then life goes on,” he said.
“We are prepared for any form of reign of terror because this is not the first time nurses have been victimised. It is senseless to victimise the hungry and naked workers. We will not call off the strike until our salaries are paid in United States dollars.”
President of the Zimbabwe Nurses Association (Zina), Enock Dongo, said nothing official had been communicated yet and urged government to urgently address their concerns.
“Patients are getting stranded and the situation is worsening. They need to resolve this impasse as a matter of urgency,” he said.
Dongo said he had held an informal meeting with the Health Services Board to update them on the situation.
“It was an informal meeting, where a few issues were clarified, but we are still waiting for the concrete resolutions,” he said.
Dongo also said the situation was being made worse due to COVID-19 and demand for more staff to manage that area.
Stakeholders called on the government to resolve the situation, but Health minister Obadiah Moyo has legal troubles of his own.
He was arrested last Friday on allegations of corruption involving a US$60 million deal to procure COVID-19 test kits and equipment. A Harare magistrate granted him $50 000 bail on Saturday.
The Senior Hospital Doctors Association also said its members were overwhelmed and pleaded with the government to act.
“The situation at the hospitals is now dire. There is no care available as health workers cannot afford to come to work anymore,” a senior doctor said.
“As senior doctors, we condemn the looting of funds meant for the COVID-19 fight and for capacitating our hospitals. We call upon the government to act.”
The Community Working Group on Health (CWGH) urged the government and the striking health workers to find each other to avoid further plunging the country’s health sector into the doldrums.
“Under normal situations, salaries for civil servants are negotiated under the Tripartite Negotiating Forum, which comprises employees, employers and government representatives.
“The way the increment was announced and the so-called ‘clarifications’ that followed showed that this was a knee-jerk reaction to pre-empt a protest that was pending,” CWGH executive director Itai Rusike said, adding there was need for proactive thinking by the leaders to address issues of national concern.
He said CWGH believed health workers’ grievances were genuine and required urgent attention. He also condemned the arrest of some of the striking workers.
“Threats or coercion of any form will further deepen the mistrust that exists between government and the workers. We believe re-engagement and dialogue are the panacea to any dispute,” Rusike said.
As a stop-gap measure, Health acting permanent secretary Gibson Mhlanga has since written to the Defence ministry requesting support for the paralysed health institutions.
In a letter addressed to Defence secretary Mark Grey Marongwe, Mhlanga said medical personnel from the Zimbabwe Defence Forces would augment coverage for emergencies and provision of patient care during the absence of nurses.
“We will be calling upon your health services personnel to assist in the hotspots at the central hospitals as requested by the chief executive officers and provincial medical directors of the affected institutions. Your assistance in this matter is greatly appreciated,” he wrote.
Critical departments like Mbuya Nehanda Parirenyatwa’s maternity wing had skeletal staff to manage the patients, most of whom were turned away.
A source at Sally Mugabe Central Hospital said the hospital was now in a dire situation as many patients were turned away.
“All departments are in serious trouble,” the source said.
Chitungwiza nurses, who had largely ignored the strike call, have now joined, with only students and senior staff on duty.
The situation was dire at Masvingo General Hospital, where all nurses did not report for duty except for those in supervisory roles.
At Chimhanda Hospital in Shamva, nurses gathered at the institution early in the morning and agreed to join the strike.
Public hospitals in Gweru, Mutare and Kwekwe were similarly affected.
— Additional reporting Moses Matenga/Tafadzwa Kachiko