BY EVANS MATHANDA The impasse between health workers and the government over salaries has come at a great cost to patients, who were already suffering due to lack of equipment and drugs to treat various ailments at public hospitals.
Frustrated junior doctors, nurses, radiographers and pharmacists, among other health workers went on strike six days ago after rejecting a 100% salary increment by the government.
They described the salary increment that would be effected from next month as an insensitive joke.
The National Joint Negotiating Committee meeting to negotiate a cost of living adjustment for civil servants ended in a stalemate a week ago, but the government went on to impose the salary increment.
Representatives of the striking health workers claimed that Health minister Constantino Chiwenga, who is also the vice- president, has not met unions in over 14 months despite many requests for dialogue.
Currently, the average monthly salary for nurses is $30 000, which is less than US$50, and the average monthly salary for doctors is $50 000 (US$80).
These incomes are far lower than the US$540 minimum wage that doctors have demanded.
Zimbabwe’s economy is in disarray due to inflation and soaring prices, hence the demands by the doctors cannot be described as unreasonable.
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Doctors are a vital cog in the health sector.
They assist patients in reducing pain, speeding up illness recovery, or adjusting to living with an incapacitating injury.
Even if a patient cannot be cured, their capacity to enjoy life makes a significant difference to them and their relatives. No society can function without doctors.
The voices of doctors are just one of many that influence public policy.
However, they hold a special position of respect and trust, which they can utilise to influence governments to implement healthcare regulations that help the general population.
Our government doesn’t seem understand the importance of doctors and other health workers, hence the deafening silence since the strike began.
Zimbabwe’s health crisis will continue to worsen if the health practitioners’ grievances are not addressed immediately.
One of the fundamental issues that must be addressed in order to find a common solution to the long running problems in the health sector is the payment of salaries in foreign currency.
After its own currency was ravaged by hyperinflation, Zimbabwe embraced the use of US dollars in 2009.
In 2019, it reintroduced its own currency, which is now failing to keep its value against the US dollar.
The central bank first introduced bond notes, a currency it said had the same value as the US dollar, before formally reintroducing the Zimbabwe dollar.
However, the local currency has failed ordinary Zimbabweans, notably civil officials, who are struggling to make ends meet.
This has resulted in frequent strikes by civil servants who now demand to be paid in foreign currency.
Some teachers joined the strike by health workers last week and the job boycott is likely to be joined by other government departments soon if the negotiations continue to falter.
According to a statement from the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe, teachers are also fed up.
To properly protect the workers, a US dollar salary plan must be established.
Chiwenga should stop ignoring the health workers’ grievances because nothing can be resolved without dialogue.
He needs to realise that it is the ordinary Zimbabwean who is bearing the brunt of the shutdown of the country’s health delivery system.
The elites can fly off to China, India or South Africa for treatment whenever they fall sick, but for an ordinary Zimbabwean the choices are limited.
It was heart-breaking to see sick people being turned away from hospitals, especially in Harare last week because there were no doctors or nurses to attend to them.
The problems in the health sector have persisted since around 2019 and there is no reason why the government can not come up with a comprehensive solution to the salary issues.
Zimbabwe’s health sector is already suffocating under the weight of a serious brain drain and there is need to make sure that those that have chosen to remain at public hospitals are fairly compensated.
- Evans Mathanda is a journalist and development practitioner who writes in his personal capacity. For feedback email: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0719770038 and Twitter @EvansMathanda19