Medical doctors at public hospitals went on strike at the weekend over salaries, allowances and drug shortages. The doctors have raised issues of high transport costs, fuel shortages, acute scarcity of vital medicines and basic theatre sundries, skyrocketing food prices and the state's total disregard of previous agreements. They want their salaries to be paid in United States dollars and their vehicle loan scheme revised.
This is not the first time that medical doctors have embarked on industrial action. Earlier this year, the doctors went on strike for a month and only resumed duty after government pledged a salary hike, as well as improved working conditions. On Wednesday, government failed to reach an agreement with the doctors' representatives, who accused their employer of ignoring their grievances, citing legal issues.
The doctors' strike is a clear reflection of the country's collapsing health delivery system. The year 2018 will be remembered as one of the worst for Zimbabweans, as the country's health delivery system continued to deteriorate. The sharp increase in drug prices and general medical costs in the past three months has made healthcare unaffordable and inaccessible to the pauperised majority.
Prices of life-saving drugs have more than tripled, putting at high risk the lives of millions of Zimbabweans. The country has been hit by a critical drugs shortage caused by foreign currency scarcities, which have seen most pharmacies running out of essential medicines, including medication for chronic diseases, which are responsible for at least 50% of total deaths that occur worldwide. Where the drugs are available, pharmacies are charging exorbitant prices in US dollars, which are multiplied by a minimum 300% in Real Time Gross Settlements (RTGS) or the bond currency. These charges are just ridiculous in a country where formal unemployment is more than 90% and the majority of the formally employed earn less than $500. As healthcare costs continue to spiral, more people seem to be skipping physician visits, while less are visiting doctors. This has ultimately led to fatal repercussions. Skipping and delaying medical attention subsequently impacts on the quality of care and outcome.
Government needs to prioritise health care. While we celebrate the construction of the parliament building in Mt Hampden, whose construction is financed by the Chinese at a cost of US$676,5 million, through a grant, it is astounding that the same government lost a grant to build a state-of-the-art national pharmaceutical warehouse due to bureaucratic red tape and lack of policy cohesion. The US$25 million grant, which was availed after the two governments signed an agreement in 2015, has since been returned to Beijing. This just shows that healthcare has never been a top priority for government. If it had been, then some public hospitals would not have become death traps.
Government cannot continue to pay a deaf ear to these problems, they will not go away. What the country needs is world-class hospitals, which are well-equipped and resourced. In the short-term, the government must avail foreign currency to the health sector as a top priority.