1 February 2014

Zambia: Nurses Saga - What's the Way Forward?

FROM the time some nurses went on strike last December and Government decided to dismiss them, it cannot be denied that something is amiss in the health sector.

It all begun when Government pleaded with the nurses to return to work, but they remained adamant and stayed away from work for more than one week.

The strike started from the University Teaching Hospital (UTH) and spread slowly to other towns like Livingstone, Ndola, Kitwe and others.

As the strike spread, it was interesting to note that other nurses from township clinics especially those in Lusaka continued working.

Nurses' main cry was that anomalies in the re-aligned salaries be addressed; a move that Government assured it was working towards resolving.

While Government may appear to have acted quickly to dismiss the nurses, warnings and pleas for them to resume work were enough for them to have exercised a little patience.

But from the time the nurses were fired, the matter appears to be more complicated as they are a very important resource whose services could not be compromised.

Many issues have come into play following the firing of the nurses as some issues could not have been taken into consideration by those entrusted with the duty of firing the erring nurses.

It has come to light that at the time the striking nurses were being fired, there were some innocent victims who should have been given an opportunity to explain their positions.

Some of the affected nurses were on study leave, annual leave while others may have genuinely been off duty.

This is a group of nurses that deserved chance to explain themselves so that they could have been allowed to continue working than being affected by the dismissals.

There is also information that some of the nurses have already been reinstated irregularly creating further confusion in the payment of salaries.

Some nurses who were genuinely reinstated have not been put back on the pay roll while those who have been mistakenly reinstated have been put back on the pay roll.

This is the confusion that has arisen in the health sector and as Vice-President Guy Scott observed, authorities in charge of nurses should move quickly to resolve the impasse.

As the crisis of nurses at some health institutions continued as a result of the dismissals stakeholders moved in and described the situation at the UTH as a death trap.

Dr Scott recently, went on an on-the-spot check and refuted allegations that the situation was as bad as portrayed by some stakeholders as Government had engaged new nurses in an effort to fill the gap.

During his tour, Dr Scott's main concern was the speed at which combined efforts of Government and management where paying off in replacing nurses that were dismissed.

After the tour, Dr Scott said there was need for the Public Service Commission (PSC) to expedite the processing of hearing appeals and reinstating nurses that had been erroneously dismissed in order to normalise the staffing levels at UTH as well as at other affected institutions across the country.

He expressed disappointment at the slow pace at which the nurses were being replaced and the slow pace at which cases of nurses who were wrongly dismissed were being handled.

"I am not impressed at the slow rate at which we have replaced the nurses or re-engaged those that were wrongly dismissed," he said.

The Vice-President who was in the company of Health Minister Joseph Kasonde and UTH managing director Luckson Kasonka, described the situation at the hospital as being well.

"I mean people are complaining about UTH. They are calling it a deathtrap. That comes maybe as politicking but let us hear your problems," Dr Scott said.

He admitted that there were challenges the staff was facing as a result of the shortage of nurses, but said there was generally good customer stratification and adequate drugs.

"I am not disappointed as I feared from some of this gossip that we hear. That is why I spend all my life looking for what is true and what is not true. And that is the reason I have come here," he said.

Dr Scott said he was particularly impressed with the cleanliness in wards C, E and the maternity blocks he visited promising that he would push for more nurses at the UTH.

He said he was going to speak to the Public Service Commission because nurse who deserved to be re-employed should be employed.

Dr Kasonka said the institution had received 116 newly employed nurses out of the 215 who were dismissed a situation that showed that staffing levels would soon be met.

"There were 215 nurses that were dismissed but that number included nurses that were erroneously dismissed, because either they were on leave, or they were away in school, so the actual number of those that were dismissed is less than 215, specifically 130 or 133 there about," said Dr Kasonka.

Dr Kasonka told Dr Scott that understaffing was the biggest problem obtaining at UTH and that the replacement process had proved to be slow.

Dr Kasonka said the 1,800 bed capacity UTH which had an establishment of over 3,000 employees required at least,1000 nurses for it to operate smoothly.

Dr Kasonde on the other hand said the issue of the dismissed nurses which affected public health institutions countrywide was still being handled by the Public Service Commission.

He said affected nurses had appealed against their dismissal and he was hopeful that the Public Service Commission would speedily dispose of the cases of appeal.

Going by the fact that the fired nurses have refused to vacate Government houses and are pleading for their jobs and the Government want their appeals resolved speaks volumes.

Whatever happened should now be in the past and the way forward is to have the issue resolved in the interest of the country.

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