Zimbabwean doctors stop emergency work in escalating pay strike

Doctors in Zimbabwe are refusing to see emergency patients and mortuaries are filling up as talks collapsed on Friday and the doctors’ strike entered its second month.

The nationwide medical strike instead intensified as doctors in the second city of Bulawayo announced they would stop seeing casualty patients. 

“It is with a heavy heart that we agreed to stop attending to emergencies. We have been diligently attending to emergencies hoping that the current impasse would be resolved,” a statement from United Bulawayo Hospitals read. 

Doctors across the country have been on strike to demand better pay and working conditions as Zimbabwe grapples with severe currency shortages and spiralling inflation.

"Members of the executive met with (first lady Auxilla Mnangagwa) but no agreement was reached," Mthabisi Bebhe, secretary general of the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association, told Reuters. "The strike has not been called off."

Mrs Mnangagwa is an advocate on health issues.

The doctors’ first strike in March last year marked the first major labour dispute faced by Emmerson Mnangagwa, the president, who is under pressure to repair an economy suffering after decades of missteps by his predecessor Robert Mugabe.

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Public hospitals have been left short of drugs and reliant on patients to buy them, while some pharmacies have stopped accepting insurance policies for purchases and are demanding payment in US dollars.

Dwindling spaces in mortuaries combined with a lack of doctors to fill in the paperwork to see bodies taken out and into funeral parlours has created a huge backlog.

Doctors say their salaries, paid in local electronic cash, do not cover their living costs and they will not return to work until they are paid in real US dollars. Most junior doctors earn less than £100 per month. 

“The money which gets into our banks is not even enough for some of us to get to work if we are on shift,” Mr Bhebe told The Daily Telegraph. 

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“We have been insulted by the government, and it is not fair. We paid for our own education and we cannot survive on what we are paid… I am sure the nurses are organising now. They will go on strike soon."

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The bankrupt government says it has no money to meet the doctors’ demands, and that medics must return to work or be sacked.

The government says it will replace junior doctors with foreigners and medical students. 

All negotiations have broken down at the main teaching hospital in Harare, the Parirenyatwa, the largest in Zimbabwe, which is the only teaching hospital with a maternity ward. 

Insiders told The Telegraph that the number of beds has been halved from 5000, and most of its operating theatres and equipment are not working properly. 

Thousands of people with HIV and Aids say they fear their imported anti-retroviral medication will be delayed.  “There is no blood here, the equipment is not ready, there is nothing going on here, we can’t treat people,” said a senior nursing sister on Friday at the Parirenyatwa Hospital in central Harare, once once of Africa’s finest hospitals. 

Virtually no senior civil servants, cabinet ministers or the top national leadership seek medical help from Zimbabwe’s public health service and they also shun the well equipped, modern private hospital in Harare.  

They usually use private hospitals in neighbouring South Africa, while Mr Mugabe and his wife, Grace, have long chartered international aircraft to undergo medical treatment at an exclusive clinic in Singapore. 

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