A strike by doctors frustrated with their wages has now spread to most government hospitals leaving the country vulnerable to the raging world wide swine flu pandemic. Experts expressed concerns that with few doctors available, the country would fail to deal with any potential disease outbreaks as happened with the cholera epidemic that wreaked havoc last year.
Since the formation of the unity government in February doctors agreed to continue working, despite not being entirely happy with the US$100 offered to all civil servants. Union leaders say they had hoped Finance Minister Tendai Biti in his mid-term budget would raise their wages to reasonable levels. Doctors were subsequently awarded US$70 increases which took their salaries from US$100 to US$170 per month, but saw most of their allowances taken away.
Our Harare correspondent Simon Muchemwa reports that doctors are disillusioned by what they see as a failure by government to prioritise their welfare. The total monthly wage for doctors is currently US$390 because Crown Agents, a British relief agency is forking out an extra US$220 per doctor per month in additional allowances. The doctors say however, the extra payments are not being made in some months and cannot be relied upon. Muchemwa says money injected into the health system has seen the purchases of furniture and vehicles for hospital directors instead of wages.
The strike initially started with junior doctors two weeks ago but now senior doctors have since joined in. Reports say Bulawayo only had one consulting physician over the long Heroes weekend, while the situation in Harare was said to be better. Brighton Chizhanje the President of the Hospital Doctors Association said their strike began at Mpilo and United Hospitals in Bulawayo. Doctors at Harare Central Hospital later joined the strike. "We began by withdrawing on-call services because we are not getting on-call transport and housing allowances, yet patients are paying for drugs and drip; they are even paying for gloves used by hospital staff," he said.
Chizhanje also explained that they were not happy with the flat rate being offered by government with no allowances. He accused the government of coming up with the new pay structure without consulting them.
Meanwhile, Muchemwa also reports that even before the strike, staffing levels were still very low. In June this year he went on a familiarisation tour of hospitals with Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara, and said during a visit to Harare Central Hospital, only one doctor was said to be on duty. Even then, the doctor on duty was said to have taken a 3-hour lunch. This problem is common Muchemwa said, as doctors take time off to do work in private surgeries to supplement their income.