Doctors’ strike: A holistic approach badly needed

THERE appeared to be some headway yesterday in resolving the doctors’ strike which had severely strained an already collapsing health delivery system creaking under serious brain drain and prolonged lack of investment.

Candid Comment with Stewart Chabwinja

Doctors have called off the job action — for now.
It is unclear how many patients had lost their lives as a direct consequence of the job action which was well into its third week, despite the constitution — in Section 76(1) — giving every Zimbabwean the right to basic health care services, including reproductive health.

The impression thus far was that of lethargy on the part of the authorities charged with addressing the medicos’ concerns; they appeared to be in denial/damage limitation mode on Tuesday claiming they were unaware the strike had spread to provincial and district hospitals. You would have to be very sick, so to speak, to believe that.

There is no doubt the more than 400 doctors who were on strike have a strong case. It takes much sacrifice and investment — on the part of the medical student and parents — for the student to become a doctor as it requires about seven years of training.

The understanding is that the remuneration would make the sweat worth it, but the doctors’ current conditions of service are an insult to medical practitioners’ and their legitimate expectations.

Junior doctors at government hospitals are pressing for a pay rise from the current US$282 to a minimum of US$1 200 per month excluding allowances they also want revised.

Free accommodation at government-owned flats and reinstatement of vehicle import facilities are among other demands. Understandably, some doctors have pointed to government’s lopsided priorities, suggesting it even takes better care of traditional chiefs — whose chief qualification is lineage and political loyalty — than them despite the inordinately long hours they put into a system weighed down by severe staff, equipment and drug shortages.

That said, it would be folly to view the doctors’ dismal plight in isolation for it is microcosmic of the country’s economic crisis. It is inconceivable government can satisfactorily meet the doctors’ demands without first addressing the root cause — the ailing economy — for that would merely leave it in a tighter bind.

As disclosed by Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa last week recurrent expenditure has gobbled a staggering 92,5% of government revenue, leaving just 7% for crucial capital projects with wages chewing 81,5% of income.

Should government offer more than the increase in on-call allowance from US$1,50 to US$10 it has already offered, other civil servants would also demand a commensurate deal.

The ripple effect would render government, which is not even in a position to guarantee pay dates, unable to meet its salary obligations altogether in the face of dwindling revenues. Zimra collected US$884,5 million in the third quarter of this year against a target of US$972,3 million amid a severe liquidity crunch which has fuelled low capacity utilisation, company closures and job losses.

Most certainly, government must solve doctors’ concerns, but the only sustainable remedy is a holistic approach premised on the revival of Zimbabwe’s near-comatose economy.