COLUMNBy Phyllis Mbanje
Zimbabwean children still consider being a doctor a dream job but many are likely to have a change of heart if they listen to the tales of some of the medics working in the country’s public hospitals.
Years of neglect by the government has reduced doctors to a charity case and trivialised the hard work of the foot soldiers who mend broken bones and torn muscles back to health.
The country’s health delivery system was paralysed last week when junior doctors went on strike after the government failed to meet their demands for an immediate review of on-call allowances from $288 a month for the lowest paid doctor to $720.
Doctors also want the government to fulfil its promises to allow them to import cars duty-free.
A tour of some of Harare’s hospitals revealed that most junior doctors have become despondent as they feel that the government is not taking their concerns seriously.
“At times we are not properly protected; we may use masks that are meant for theatre but not against tuberculosis infections,” lamented one of the striking doctors.
After five years of university study, burning the candle beyond the witching hours and then two more years of community work in the dreadful public hospitals that often have no equipment and are overwhelmed with patients, most doctors said they had nothing to show for their hard work.
Twenty-eight-year-old *Farai, a junior doctor in Harare, said he felt cheated by the system.
“I am supposed to be a shining beacon in my community and a provider for my parents who toiled to get me here, but instead I am faced with joblessness,” he said.
Farai is one of the over 200 doctors who downed their tools last week after negotiations with their employer hit a snag.
The industrial action was triggered by the ministry of Health’s failure to resolve the long-standing issues, which include the fact that doctors are currently earning around $1,20/hour.
Doctors are also not happy about the government’s decision to stop employing doctors upon completion of their two-year internship, rendering many jobless.
“Health workers are overworked but it defies logic that authorities are turning around and claiming that there are no posts,” said Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association president Edgar Munatsi.
The doctors are also demanding that the Health Services Board (HSB) urgently implements the agreed duty-free car imports framework for all government doctors.
“I do not have a car and I am forced to use public transport even in cases of emergency,” Farai said.
“This is an affront to the once noble profession which has now been dragged into the mud.”
Munatsi said doctors needed reliable transport as they often attended to emergency situations.
“People do not choose when to or not to get sick. So it is clear why doctors need vehicles,” he said.
“We are not asking for Ford Rangers or Jeeps. We only ask that we be enabled to buy ‘very old’ cars that are no longer in use so that we can get to work.”
Farai, who is still single, is unsure how he will ever repay his parents for the sacrifice that they made for him to go through the prestigious programme which cost them every penny.
“My siblings’ education was sacrificed for me to get ahead so that I would in turn help them out, but that is not even possible,” he added.
Trainee doctors fork out almost $1 200 per semester while nurses are actually paid during training.
“We missed out on the ‘happy’ college days because we were always reading,” he said.
“College mates from other departments would go out for drinks and chased after girls but we stayed behind, pushing through the difficult and challenging syllabus.”
Farai believes that most of the students who take up medicine come from poor families and are determined to change their circumstances.
“We are mostly from humble homes and what drove us is that we wanted to make life easier and better for our families and communities,” he said.
But instead, they are now the laughing stock, with everyone feeling sorry for them.
“Initially, relatives and friends had high expectations of us and just could not understand when I failed to meet those expectations,” he said.
Like Farai, *Mercy too faces the same dilemma. Despite working hard throughout her training, she is disillusioned at her diminishing prospects of living a decent life.
“I am a doctor and I am very proud of it but look at me and tell me if this is what a doctor should look like,” she said pointing at her cheap-looking sandals and plain green tartan skirt that has seen better days.
Her brownish weave had lost its gloss just like her career.
“I am 27 and by Zimbabwean standards, I am now considered too old to be married,” she said.
“I never used to worry about such things but now reality is staring me in the face.”
Her worries are mirrored in the eyes of many such young female doctors who are grappling with poor remuneration.
“At least we should be rewarded enough for the donkey work that we do. I love nurturing patients back to life and when I cannot do that for whatever reason, it worries me,” she said.
Farai loves making people feel better.
“There is nothing more rewarding than to check on a sick patient the next morning and they look all better,” he said.
But nothing can prepare the doctors for the loss of life which is inevitable at times.
“I take it personally when a patient of mine doesn’t make it. I go through the notes and check to see if I could have done anything differently that might have saved their life,” said Mercy.
Meanwhile, the Zimbabwe Doctors for Human Rights (ZDHR) has urged the government to address the doctors’ demands and rescue the country’s health delivery system.
“Medical professionals are an important cog in the resuscitation and development of the health sector,” ZDHR said in a statement. “We believe prioritising their conditions of service will motivate the doctors to contribute towards better health outcomes for the nation.
“ZDHR, therefore, calls upon the Ministry of Health and Child Care to urgently improve the conditions of work for health professionals instead of issuing threats of ostracisation and victimisation and to ensure that essential drugs are provided in all public health institutions.”
Health and Child Care minister David Parirenyatwa last week said the government had created 2 000 posts for nurses and 250 for doctors to ease the workload at public hospitals.
The government is yet to table an offer to review allowances of the striking doctors.