Zimbabwe doctors strike: Are demands justifiable and reasonable?

By Dr Benson Mudiwa

Zimbabwe’s health system was plunged into further chaos, a day after Valentine’s Day on Wednesday 15 January 2017, when the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association (ZHDA), the representative association of Government Doctors in Zimbabwe, announced that doctors in Zimbabwe were withdrawing their services.

This is after negotiations with relevant authorities concerning their conditions of service had hit a brick wall. One should understand that Doctors resort to industrial action when Government drags its feet in timeously resolving pertinent issues bedevilling the profession in providing healthcare to the nation. Strikes are unnecessary, but become necessitated when Government turns a deaf ear to the plight of the Doctors

There has been much bickering, misinformation and public backlash to the striking Doctors. It is evident that the public is unaware of what Doctors are fighting for, and how they need to support this fight, as it is not for selfish aggrandisement on the Doctors part, it’s far from that, but rather an attempt to reduce the rot happening to the healthcare of Zimbabwe

It is easy to be disillusioned by just looking at the surface and apportioning blame to these hard working Doctors, it is easy to throw in phrases like “ your profession is a calling, negotiate while at work” , or “you are no longer upholding the Hippocratic oath”, but it suffices to say that “calling” is not a currency that can be used to pay bills like electricity, water, neither can “calling” be used to buy groceries and pay school fees. Also, those quoting the Hippocratic oath, unfortunately have no idea what it says or means, thus making their assertions conjectural fallacy.

Doctors demands are simple and reasonable, far below the minimum SADC requirements for any health professional, and the Government of Zimbabwe can surely meet the demands. If other SADC countries like Lesotho and Swaziland, with far less resources and a smaller GDP can prioritise their health and grant these, it is embarrassing that the Zimbabwe government chooses not to do so.

Doctors are demanding that the government does not freeze Doctor’s posts. As it stands, the country does not have enough health professionals to meet its objectives, the doctor-patient ratio in Zimbabwe is far above being unacceptable with many hospitals having severe health professional understaffing. It is therefore perplexing that Government would want to freeze posts for Doctors citing Budgetary constraints.  

This is the same government, though not at war, continues availing “budget” for army and police recruitment yearly. The consequence of this freeze is to further paralyse healthcare in Zimbabwe by worsening the understaffing already present. This means the few health professionals left will be overworked and fatigued which is actually dangerous to the citizenry as mistakes abound in tired, overworked health professionals. By demanding posts to be made available, doctors are actually trying to protect the citizenry, which is already overburdened by other multifactorial national problems

Doctors are also demanding that their posts be appropriately graded. It is common practice in all government departments, that when an officer has assumed a more senior post, they should be upgraded, and receive remuneration commensurate with the post they have assumed. This, for some reason is not happening to doctors, though it happens in all other government departments.

Doctors continue receiving the same salaries many years after they have acquired more senior ones. The situation is akin to a police officer who continues rising through the ranks over the years but still receives the salary of the most junior position he once held, it’s like a Headmaster continuing to receive the salary equivalent of a student teacher. It does not make sense, and doctors should not be an exception to the norm

The reneging by Government of the promise made to Doctors after the strike in 2014, with regards to the On Call allowance is another bone of contention doctors are having with their employer. This is basically an ‘overtime’ allowance that all other civil servants are entitled to, and are receiving and it surely cannot be termed greed when Doctors demand it

The wavering of Duty on vehicles purchased by Doctors is another of the doctors demands. This facility was availed before, around 2010, bur was mysteriously discontinued shortly afterwards, government again citing incomprehensible “budgetary constraints”.

This is not a request for an opulent top billing lifestyle of top of the range vehicles like what other more deserving civil servants are accorded, this is just a request for exemption from the punitive duty that is aid on cheap, imported, mostly ex-Japanese vehicles which will be some semblance of reliable transport. This will enable these professionals to discharge their duties timeously. No patient should have to wait to be attended in an emergency simply because a doctor is stuck in public transport.

In conclusion, Doctors demands are very reasonable, and the lack of willpower and dragging of feet being exhibited by the government is unfortunate. Truth of the matter is that the government can most certainly meet these demands, the fact the they continue turning a blind eye to the industrial action and protracting the negotiations is a call to the citizenry of Zimbabwe to support the doctors as they fight for the expeditious betterment of the healthcare of Zimbabwe

  • Dr Benson Mudiwa is a medical doctor, trained in Zimbabwe and practised at Harare Central Hospital, and Musiso Mission Hospital in Zaka. He writes in his personal capacity