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Doctors' strike exacerbates health sector crisis in Zimbabwe

January 2, 2019

A monthlong nationwide strike by doctors in Zimbabwe has left thousands of patients without adequate treatment and many beds empty. The doctors are demanding an increase in salaries and improved working conditions.

Empty beds in a hospital in Harare
Image: DW/Privilege Musvanhiri

Parirenyatwa Hospital in the capital, Harare, is a national referral medical center that is usually bustling with activity. These days it is strangely quiet and almost deserted as only emergency cases are being attended to. Other patients are becoming desperate.

Sixty-seven-year-old Violet Chimbiro, who has colon cancer, left the hospital disappointed and in pain. The medication she needs has run out in public hospitals. She was told she would have to buy the drugs herself but that is not so easy.

Private health facilities are demanding payments in foreign currency, especially US dollars, which is hard to access for ordinary people. Pharmacists are refusing to accept the local bond notes which in the last three months have lost value. For Violet Chimbiro, this means she is not getting the medication she needs.

"I have been given a prescription to go and buy drugs. But chemists want payment in US dollars which I don't have. My children can't help me because they don't earn US dollars. The prescriptions are just piling up. I just keep them as I do not have the money," she told DW.

An elderly female patient outside a hospital in Harare
Cancer patient Violet Chimbiro can't get the medication she needsImage: DW/Privilege Musvanhiri

Doctors ignore ultimatum

The striking doctors say the public health sector in Zimbabwe has suffered years of neglect. Speaking to DW, doctor Allan Dimingo said the decision to strike had not been taken lightly but working conditions for himself and his colleagues were "terrible." He said doctors have less than 30 percent of the drugs listed on Zimbabwe's Essential Drugs List (EDLIZ). "That is unacceptable," he said.

The government considers the strike to be illegal. After a labor court ruled in favor of the government in December, doctors were given a 12-hour ultimatum to return to work but they did not comply.  

More than 500 doctors were then suspended without pay. One of them, Prince Butau, described the psychological pressure the doctors were dealing with. 

"We can come back to work as doctors but we will be doing nothing because there is nothing to help the patients with. We are just attending to patients but patients are dying whilst we watch. It is not good for us to remain quiet if we do not tell the whole nation or the world what is happening."

End in sight?

Zimbabwe's vice president, former army general Constantino Chiwenga, caused controversy in April 2018 when he fired nurses who were striking for better pay. Now he has warned that a failure to return to work by the doctors will be followed by disciplinary hearings. He accused the doctors of playing with patients' lives. "You don't take patients, somebody who is on his or her deathbed, and then you want to gamble. Our constitution says there is a right to life," he said.

As negotiations to end the standoff continue there are some signs of movement by the government. Some items of medical equipment which were in short supply have been delivered and some drug stocks have been replenished.