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Agony, despair at major hospitals as doctors’ strike bites

Seventy-four-year-old Elliot Moyo is a bitter man. He was hit by a car and suffered a broken leg, among other serious injuries, early last week.

News in depth BY pHYLLIS MBANJE

Elliot Moyo (in wheelchair) listens to Health minister Obadiah Moyo last week

Since then, he has been making several fruitless trips to Parirenyatwa Hospital in Harare because doctors were not available to treat his injuries.

For three days in a row, he was being wheeled into the out-patients department at the country’s major referral hospital, but did not receive any help and now fears for his life.

Moyo is one of the many patients that have been caught in the crossfire following a stalemate between the government and doctors at public hospitals over salaries.

The doctors went on strike last Saturday demanding to be paid in foreign currency, among other things.

“My leg was broken in an accident and it gives me unbearable pain because no doctor has attended to me at all. I have been coming here for the past three days, but I have not been attended to,” Moyo said while grimacing in pain as he clutched his X-ray records in a big envelope. Like the rest of the other patients, Moyo continued to wait in a queue, unsure if at all he would get attention.

Moyo’s face was bathed in sweat and he struggled to breathe because of the pain ripping through his body. The heat further dampened the atmosphere as well as the rancid bodily odours in the overcrowded out-patients department.

“We just come and sit here, but they tell us the doctors are on strike and so there is little they can do. It is so painful to be in a place of healing and not be able to get help,” he said shifting slightly in the wheelchair.

Despite the strike by doctors, patients continued streaming to public hospitals in the hope that government would find a solution to the crippling strike.

The patients cannot afford private hospital fees that are now charged in United States dollars, whose value against the bond note has been surging since the introduction of the Transitional Stabilisation Programme by Finance minister Mthuli Ncube two months ago.

This has crippled the health services in the country, three months into President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s rule after the July 30 elections.

Ironically, gigantic campaign billboards promising good health care if Mnangagwa won the controversial polls are still a common feature in most urban areas.

The Zanu PF leader’s rule has been hit by massive economic turbulence.

Long, winding fuel queues, pushing up prices of goods, shortage of foreign currency as well as the skyrocketing cost of living are some of the problems giving the government headaches.

Inflation has eroded civil servants’ salaries and doctors are now demanding salaries in foreign currency.

The doctors’ strike enters its eighth day today and patients continue to bear the brunt of the crisis at public hospitals.

“The government should give the doctors what they want so that they can come back and treat us. Just look at us, is this the Zimbabwe we want, people being denied healthcare?” retorted an elderly woman at Parirenyatwa Hospital on Thursday.

Patson Matanga said he felt helpless because his nine-year-old son required a plaster for his broken arm, but had not been attended to for two days.

His son sat on the cold, hard benches with his arm in a makeshift sling. His face mirrored the pain he felt and the confusion over why he was not being treated.

“What am I supposed to do with him? We came here, but there is no one to attend to him,” a frustrated Matanga lamented.

Jacob Cherera from Chitungwiza was also angry that the doctors’ grievances were not being addressed.

“I came with my elderly mother who is very sick, but we are not getting any help here,” he said.

“We understand the doctors’ concerns and we have no problems with them.

“The government has an obligation to ensure its employees are well-looked after. That is the only way we can also get help,” he said.

Cherera was cheered on by other patients who went on to demand an audience with Health and Child Care minister Obadiah Moyo, who was touring the hospital at the time.

Moyo said he hoped the impasse with doctors would be resolved soon so that the patients could be attended to.

“Our core concern is the patients and that is what we are working on to resolve this matter quickly,” he said.

The strike has crippled services, reducing public health facilities to mere shells.

It has affected all the country’s major referral hospitals, including Parirenyatwa and Chitungwiza central hospitals in Harare, United Bulawayo Hospitals, and Mpilo Central Hospital in Bulawayo as well as Mutare General Hospital.

Junior doctors at public health facilities downed tools citing many challenges, which included poor working conditions and low salaries as well as lack of basic medicines and equipment.

Key among their concerns are acute shortages of vital medicines and basic theatre consumables. The doctors also said they were concerned about the fact that private pharmacies were demanding US dollar payments and rejecting medical aid from patients.

They are also not happy about long working hours, which they said left the healthcare workers overburdened and fatigued.

Most hospitals are understaffed and use obsolete equipment.

The medical professionals also want to be paid in foreign currency after the government started charging import duty for some goods, including cars, in foreign currency.

Doctors said their remuneration was too little and that their income was eroded by the devaluation of the local currency on the parallel foreign currency market.

“What we are appealing for is genuine. These are genuine concerns and there is no reason to persuade anyone to understand this,” the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors’ Association said in a statement last week.

In their first meeting last Wednesday, the doctors and the government failed to reach an agreement.

The doctors vowed to carry on with the industrial action until their demands are met.

As if that was not enough, the Zimbabwe Government Radiographers’ Association (ZiGRA) also joined the industrial action on Thursday.

“As the Zimbabwe Government Radiographer Association, we regret to inform you that we have reached a conclusion to engage in an industrial action with effect from the 6th of December 2018. We will not be discharging our services to the general public nationwide,” ZiGRA said in statement.

Moyo was criticised for failing to speedily deal with the issues raised by the striking doctors.

“It is shocking that Health minister Obadiah Moyo dwells on the legality of the job action than solutions as if he is reading from his predecessor’s script. No responsible and accountable minister or government would turn a blind eye to a crisis of this magnitude or wish it away.

“We are in this health crisis, minister, because your predecessor used to behave the same way: burying his head in the sand than tackling the issue head-on,” said Itai Rusike, the director of the Community Working Group on Health.

“We would like to remind the government that it has the national obligation to see that its citizens have access to quality and affordable health services as guaranteed in section 76 of the country’s constitution.

“And that responsibility can only be achieved when health personnel like doctors, physicians and nurses are working normally.”

In March, doctors embarked on a strike that lasted several weeks as they pressed on Mnangagwa’s government to improve their working conditions.

Strikes have become common in the health sector, which has suffered a severe brain drain and a shortage of drugs and equipment over the years.

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