By Tinashe Kairiza
GOVERNMENT’S recent decision to remove striking junior doctors from the payroll exposes underlying authoritarian tendencies and reluctance by President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration to revamp the country’s shambolic public health sector as well as mend the fragile economy.
Astoundingly, as government fired the striking doctors, the ruling Zanu PF was having its congress in Esigodini, but did not pass among its resolutions the need to urgently resolve the impasse with the doctors and fix the collapsing health sector..
Senior doctors on Monday joined the strike, saying they can no longer cope with the mounting workload in the absence of their juniors.
The situation is dire.
Although government is understandably constrained by limited fiscal space, the decision to terminate salaries of the disgruntled junior doctors will compound problems associated with efficient service delivery in the health sector, which is hamstrung by an acute shortage of essential drugs and skills flight among a plethora of challenges.
Nearly 20 years after the Abuja Declaration in Nigeria where African leaders committed to ensure at least 15% of their national budget go towards financing their health delivery system, Zimbabwe is failing to adhere to the pledge.
Zimbabwe will next year channel US$694,5 million of its US$8,2 billion budget towards financing the health sector, representing 8,2% of the budget.
Such a commandist approach by Mnangagwa’s administration to expel the doctors exposes government’s despotic instincts and a lack of commitment to address the conditions of service in the health sector.
As government dithers on coming up with a lasting solution to end the deadlock with the striking doctors, thousands of patients remain to death sentences in hospitals unmanned by doctors and reeling from chronic drug shortages.
Millions of citizens dread the prospect of falling ill, lest they be admitted to shambolic public hospitals which have become death traps.
As the country’s public health sector systematically collapses, the elite, most notably Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga and Foreign Minister Sibusiso Moyo, are flown to South Africa and advanced countries where they are treated at ultra-modern hospitals when they fall ill. It is a clear admission that hospitals at home cannot be trusted.
This week, bipartite negotiations to end a two-week salary stand-off between striking doctors and government collapsed. Subsequently, the disgruntled doctors, who have been demanding to receive their salaries in foreign currency as well as an improvement of their working conditions were expunged from the wage bill.
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.
The argument advanced by the junior doctors, as well as scores of other civil servants is that government should be able to pay salaries in foreign currency, if it insists on the fallacy that the US dollar is trading pari passu with the bond note.
Workers in the private sector are also pushing their employers to pay salaries in foreign currency, triggering business to ask government to come up with a holistic approach to resolve the currency crisis.
In a similar kneejerk approach, Vice-President Chiwenga in April arbitrarily fired thousands of striking nurses over poor remuneration, generating intense debate around government’s commitment to the rule of law, due process and constitutional rights, as well as political and civil liberties.
The nurses had downed their tools demanding basic essential tools to carry out their duties as well as payment of salary arrears which date as far back as 2010.
Chiwenga’s heavy-handed approach immediately drew sharp criticism, with analysts citing that Zimbabwe had effectively morphed into a military dictatorship akin to Rwanda’s authoritarian model under President Paul Kagame.
In the latest instance by government to scrap off the disgruntled doctors from the payroll, Mnangagwa’s administration, currently battling to broaden Treasury’s limited fiscal space, appears to be glossing over structural problems crippling the economy and the health services sector, without proffering lasting solutions to end the persisting economic crisis.
Teachers have also threatened to join the chorus of other civil servants demanding an improvement of their remuneration and working conditions, amid a tanking economy hurtling towards the cliff.
At the heart of Zimbabwe’s economic crisis, the southern African country is gripped by a chronic foreign currency crisis, worsened by government’s insistence that the surrogate currency it introduced in 2013 to ostensibly boost export receipts is trading at par with the green back. Ironically, the fiat currency is rapidly losing value against other currencies on the market.
Coupled to that, Zimbabwe is also battling to arrest widespread company closures and extinguishing a huge external debt stock of US$12 billion.
Political analyst Maxwell Saungweme said the law-and-order approach by government to remove the junior doctors from the payroll would not resolve the labour dispute, while the health delivery system will continue to slide towards collapse. The lives of scores of patients admitted at various public hospitals are under siege.
“It is a hopeless move by a clueless government. You do not deal with the plight of doctors, civillian issues, by using a military approach.
“Doctors are in short supply and there is need for serious dialogue with both sides to find a win-win outcome than really adopt one-sided militaristic approaches,” Saungweme said, adding that government should come up with a responsive approach to address the underlying problems crippling the economy and the health services sector.
Political analyst and senior consultant at the International Crisis Group (ICG) Piers Pigou said there was urgent need for government to address the currency volatility crisis, which has seen the earnings of civil servants who receive their salaries as Real-Time Gross Settlement (RTGS) bank balances being eroded rapidly against a firming US dollar on the local market.
“By withholding pay, the government appear to have sabotaged their negotiations with junior doctors that were reportedly close to a solution. If this can be reversed quickly, there may be room for expediting a solution. But the government is essentially trapped as a consequence of its own and its predecessors’ financial delinquency; it is essentially bankrupt. The issues raised by the doctors regarding pay and conditions are not unreasonable, but accommodating them opens the doors for other (invariably not unreasonable) claims from other elements of the civil service,”he said.