Maputo — The doctors' strike, organised by the Mozambican Medical association (AMM), on Friday entered its fifth day, despite statements by both the AMM and the Ministry of Health that they are willing to resume discussions about doctors' wages.
The AMM chairperson, Jorge Arroz, interviewed by the independent television station STV on Thursday night said that the Ministry has not yet replied to the letter sent by the AMM on Wednesday.
In that letter, the AMM said it was "completely open" to discuss doctors' wages, but demanded an end to all "threats and intimidation" against striking doctors, and wanted "an external observer" to attend the talks, suggesting that this could be the country's main trade union federation, the OTM.
Arroz found the Ministry's failure to reply hard to understand – he pointed out that the AMM headquarters is literally on the other side of the street from the Health Ministry, so there should be no difficulty in communication,
The strikers have now called on the Mozambican Human Rights League (LDH) for assistance. According to a report in Friday's issue of the independent newsheet "Mediafax", strikers who were meeting in a central Maputo public garden asked for the presence of LDH chairperson Alice Mabota when they found that they were surrounded by police, and felt threatened.
Since there is nothing illegal about meeting in a public garden, and the group of doctors posed no conceivable threat to public order, the police presence was unnecessary and counter-productive.
Mabota, and other LDH lawyers, went immediately to the garden, where the strikers took the opportunity to denounce other threats they say they have been subjected to. (In some districts, it has been reported that the local administration and the police have tried to coerce strikers back to work).
Mabota advised the strikers to remain calm and ensure that all their actions are in line with the law, so that they are not open to any form of sanctions.
She also warned that the LDH would intervene in defence of the strikers, if the Ministry tried to take disciplinary measures against them. Earlier in the week, the Ministry spokesperson, Martinho Djedje, said that any striker would be marked as absent from work. Under the General Statute of State Functionaries (which governs labour relations in the public administration, including the health service) unjustified absences can lead, not only to loss of wages for those days, but also to disciplinary proceedings.
"I hope that no mechanism is used that damages the interests of the doctors", said Mabota, "because if that happens, we will intervene. Any expulsion of doctors or opening of disciplinary hearings should be responded to with a case against the government which has been insensitive to the grievances of the doctors".
She even claimed that if any patients die during the strike, the government will be to blame, as if it were the government rather than the AMM that had called the strike. "The Mozambican state is clearly responsible for people's lives", she said. "Regardless of the type of discussions and disagreements, it is up to the government to guarantee the health and life of the public. If it wants, it can go to China and hire doctors, but it must ensure the health of Mozambicans".
On Thursday afternoon, Mabota, accompanied by LDH lawyers and members of the AMM leadership, was received by Prime Minister Alberto Vaquina. It is not clear what advances, if any, were made at this meeting – but "Mediafax" added that it was followed by "a technical meeting" held to put forward ideas on how to overcome the dispute between the Ministry and the AMM.
Meanwhile, the Medical Faculty of Maputo's Eduardo Mondlane University (UEM) has warned striking student doctors, who are undergoing training at Maputo Central Hospital, that unless they return to work, they will lose the academic year. The practical work that the students do at the hospital is an integral part of their medical degree.
The AMM wrote to the Medical Faculty, defending the right of the students to join the strike. The students were members of the AMM and were complying with the AMM's Code of Ethics which obliges members "to act in solidarity under all circumstances in defence of collective interests".
The letter declared that it was "legitimate and legal" for the trainees to join the strike, and urged the Faculty "not to intimidate the student doctors".
The dispute between the AMM and the Ministry about how many doctors are on strike is continuing, with the AMM claiming 90 per cent of its members have joined the strike, while the Ministry claims that no more than 20 per cent of Mozambican doctors are on strike.
STV television crews visiting Maputo and Matola health units report that the strike is having an impact, at least in terms of greatly increasing the times patients must wait before seeing a doctor. Several of the patients STV interviewed gave up rather than wait any longer. Yet some of the staff interviewed at the health centres insist that the long queues have nothing to do with the strike.