Zimbabwe counting cost of doctors’ strike

HARARE – Lester Simango arrived at the country’s largest referral hospital, Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals (PGH), visibly in pain and with his clothes hanging over his frail frame, battered by disease.

He was among scores of patients who trooped to an oversubscribed PGH and waited in vain for long hours for assistance from doctors that had downed their tools from the beginning of last month.

The industrial action, the most devastating in recorded history, only ended yesterday.

But many are still counting the losses it caused.

Left in corridors and without assistance, it had dawned on the patients who had made public hospitals their first choice on account of affordability that these institutions had become death traps.

Those with no health insurance to move to private facilities or the financial muscle to pay for private healthcare had to go back to their homes where some met their tragic deaths.

In the desperation that emerged, prophets and spiritual healers cashed in on the crisis as they became the only source of hope for the suffering patients.

Although statistics were scarce on the number of preventable deaths that could have occurred in public hospitals since the doctors downed their tools in protest, it is public knowledge that all the major referral hospitals, among them PGH, Harare Central Hospital and Mpilo Hospital were no longer admitting new patients.

Mpilo is the largest referral hospital in Bulawayo, getting patients from all Matabeleland provinces and parts of the Midlands.

At Parirenyatwa, wards that usually take in 30 patients only had four in the wake of an admission freeze.

Elsewhere, bodies were piling up at mortuaries while hundreds of would-be-patients were bearing the brunt of the crippling strike, which had caused the cessation of emergency life-saving procedures throughout the country.

In one of the interviews granted to the Daily News by the Zimbabwe Hospitals Doctors’ Association spokesperson Mxolisi Ngwenya, he claimed that Mpilo Hospital was certifying an average of four deaths per day, describing the situation as “unacceptable”.

A spokesperson of a rival MDC faction led by Thokozani Khupe said patients were left stranded during the strike and there was preventable loss of life.

Obert Gutu, the party’s spokesperson, said the majority of Zimbabweans were poor citizens, unable to afford the costs of engaging private medical doctors whenever they are in need of medical treatment.

Therefore, any job action by health practitioners affects the majority poor, who rely on public hospitals.

Describing a healthy nation as a happy and progressive nation, thus underlining the importance of the role played by medical practitioners in people’s daily lives, Gutu said medical doctors were “severely over-worked and thoroughly under paid”.

The doctors — striking for the third time in three years — were demanding, among other things, an upward review of on-call allowance from the current $1,50 an hour saying in 2014 government promised an increase to $10 an hour.

They also wanted government to honour its word to subsidise purchase of cars and the Health Services Board (HSB) to urgently implement the agreed vehicle duty-free framework. They were also clamouring for a review of the $16 a month rural allowance paid to government doctors who treat the majority of Zimbabwe’s population in rural areas.

The resultant incapacitation of health services had hit rock bottom on Thursday at when consultants, who had been hired by government withdrew their services upon noting that they were unable to deliver safe and adequate services to patients in the absence of junior and middle level doctors.

The consultants had been holding fort since the strike began a month ago.

“In this regard, we have resolved that we are unable to see and manage any new patients coming into our tertiary hospitals,” the consultants’ representative committee had written to clinical directors and the chief executive officers (CEOs) of Parirenyatwa and Harare hospitals.

In a letter gleaned by the Daily News sent to the clinical director of Parirenyatwa and copied to the hospital’s CEO, Thomas Zigora last Thursday, the consultants had poured their hearts out.

“If you want us to come to your office and explain the serious challenges we have encountered as individuals running a labour ward at a tertiary institution as a one-man team, we will be happy to do so. This has gone on for too long and as consultants, we have reached breaking point and we will no longer be available to cover emergencies after this Friday (March 30) without essential relevant junior staff,” reads part of the letter.

The crisis, occasioned by the withdrawal of services by the consultants could have forced the new government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa to hammer out a fresh deal to end the strike.

According to sources, as part of the deal, the HSB — under advisory from Mnangagwa — agreed to increase on-call allowances for junior doctors to $7,50 per hour on the basis of 160 working hours per month.

Night duty allowances were increased from $217 to $303 monthly, on an “unclaimable” sliding scale.

Government also undertook to avail $10 million as seed capital towards a revolving vehicle loan scheme for health workers at concessionary interest, according to a report in one of the State weeklies.

The doctors, who had rejected interventions by Health and Child Care minister David Parirenyatwa and Vice President Constantino Chiwenga, were claiming at the time that Mnangagwa’s administration had availed funds to the HSB through the ministry of Finance, but both were reluctant to make concessions.

They had further claimed the HSB was withholding information and, at time misrepresenting facts, resulting in the hiatus, amid fears from the health workers that the ministry of Finance and the HSB wanted to hijack funds from the president.

Perhaps it was the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) — an independent commission appointed by government — which summed up the national feeling towards government’s poor handling of the crisis.

The commission opined that Mnangagwa and his Cabinet’s commitment to solving the health crisis was comprised by their continued seeking of treatment in foreign countries while shunning local public hospitals which are a product of their bad policies.

“The commission notes with concern that due to the inadequate and poor facilities in most public health institutions, the leaders within the government of Zimbabwe generally shun the services that are a product of their policies and decisions,” ZHRC said in a statement.

Former president Robert Mugabe still travels to Singapore for his medical check-up and treatment at the taxpayers’ expense.

ZHRC said this practice, displays a clear lack of confidence in the public health delivery system by the country’s leaders and compromises commitment and resoluteness in ensuring the recovery of the system.

The commission also noted that the practice relegates such services to the poor who have to contend with the deteriorating health standards, which fly in the face of the rights-based approach to development.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to which the Zimbabwean government has committed include targets to achieve good health and well-being for all

ZHRC said this cannot be achieved if the current challenges bedevilling the Zimbabwean health delivery system are not addressed with the urgency and seriousness that they deserve. – Daily News