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By Phyllis Mbanje
A sense of despair has pervaded Zimbabwe’s major hospitals as the standoff between the government and health workers has left critically ill patients stranded.
Doctors at public health institutions, who have been on strike for over two weeks demanding a review of their allowances, among a litany of issues, have been joined by nurses to press the government to act on the rot in the country’s public hospitals.
Scores of people desperate for medical care are being turned away from the country’s major referral hospital that are manned by skeleton staff since the strike escalated on Thursday with the nurses joining the job boycott.
At Harare Central Hospital patients suffering from life-threatening ailments were being discharged yesterday while some were demanding the release of their relatives who were not getting any medical attention.
Parirenyatwa Hospital’s out-patients department (OPD) was a theatre of confusion yesterday morning as junior nurses battled to attend to tens of people that desperately needed medical attention.
A middle-aged woman on a stretcher bed writhed in agony at the OPD. Clutching her abdomen she cried incessantly, but there was no one to attend to her.
The other patients waiting in the queues watched helplessly.
Asked if they were being attended to, a couple who were with their toddler son said they had been waiting since morning. It was almost midday.
“We have been here since morning, but the woman by the reception told us doctors were on strike, nurses are nowhere to be seen and we are just waiting, maybe something will happen,” said the young mother.
Dixon Mpande (40), who was having difficulties in breathing, said he did not have money to seek private medical care.
“I came all the way from Murehwa and I am currently staying with my son in Budiriro. He is not working at the moment and survives by doing odd jobs in town,” he said.
His cracked white lips hinted he could have been very hungry considering he had been in the queue for over four hours.
“They just said there are no doctors and they are only attending to accident victims and those with diarrhoea,” Mpande said.
Just outside the OPD within the nearby car park, three elderly women were watching over a patient who suffered a stroke and was supposed to get a CT scan.
“We have been referred from one place to the other and each time we are made to push the stretcher ourselves,” said one of the women.
“In my whole life I have never experienced a situation like this. We understand there is a strike, but does that mean we die?”
The patient struggled to sit up as she narrated her ordeal.
“I am in pain right now, but I have not been considered serious enough, according to their vetting procedures,” she said.
The desperation and fear evident on her face mirrored the feeling among the patients, some of whom had been trying to seek treatment at the hospital for over a week without any success.
Some of the patients had come from other health centres around the capital hoping to get assistance at Parirenyatwa.
At Harare Central Hospital, the situation was worse as the OPD was closed. A woman manning one of the five counters dismissed our news crew as she thought they were patients.
“You will not be able to get services here because of the strike,” she said.
The security guard manning the entrance advised the journalists to seek services elsewhere.
“My sister, if I were you I would go to a private clinic because here no one will attend to you, all of them have joined the strike,” he said.
At some point confused patients mobbed him as they tried to squeeze out more information about the situation at the hospital.
A Harare Central City Council ambulance was parked by the entrance at the OPD and a patient was lying on the stretcher bed.
His two relatives forlornly looked on as the ambulance attendants tried to negotiate with the hospital staff.
After a while they bundled the stretcher back into the ambulance and drove off in a huff.
An elderly man from Kuwadzana, who said he had a damaged kidney and liver, said it was sad that the government was leaving them to die without getting any help.
His daughter Charity Mutsvuke, who was nursing a baby, echoed her father’s sentiments, saying authorities had an obligation to ensure health institutions remained operational.
“They should just give them the money because their role is too important,” she said
Junior doctors in Harare and Bulawayo went on strike on March 1. The strike spread to include all public hospitals in the country last Monday.
The Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors’ Association (ZHDA) said the government had reneged on an agreement reached four years ago to increase on-call allowances for doctors to $10 an hour from the current $1,50.
Other promises were related to better working conditions and duty-free vehicles.
Junior doctors in Zimbabwe earn a basic monthly salary of $329 before allowances.
Doctors and nurses yesterday rejected claims by the Health Services Board (HSB) that they had reached a deal with the government to end the strike.
“We met the government negotiators on March 15, and they showed up three hours late for the meeting. They misrepresented minutes of the last meeting on 06 March 2018, omitting demands raised by the ZHDA and we refused to pass them as accurate,” said ZHDA spokesperson Mxolisi Ngwenya.
The doctors also said the government negotiators went on to claim that doctors work 72 hours on call per month.
“This was refuted by the ZHDA using a circular issued by the secretary of Health which stated that we work 160 hours on call per month,” Ngwenya said.
“The government team insisted that they were paying $5 per hour, which was proven to be inaccurate, a fabrication and a complete misrepresentation.
“ZHDA asked government to get their facts right and not negotiate in bad faith like they have always done since 2014. The meeting reached a deadlock and was postponed to Friday March 16.
“Government negotiators showed up two hours late for Friday’s meeting and had not bothered to rectify the misrepresentations highlighted in the previous meeting.”
The doctors then rejected the offer and have said they will not return to work until all issues raised have been fully resolved.
Nurses also rejected the government offer. Zimbabwe Nurses Association secretary general Enock Dongo said they would not return to work until their grievances were met.
“They reneged on what we had agreed on earlier, which is totally unacceptable,” he said.
Meanwhile, the HSB claims it has reviewed on-call, night duty and standby/call allowances for doctors by 50% and re-introduced a post basic allowance for nursing staff who acquire approved additional qualifications up to a maximum of two qualifications.
The government also introduced a nurse managers allowance in recognition of the added responsibilities