Harare, Zimbabwe – At least half of the doctors working for Zimbabwe’s two leading hospitals have not reported for duty for the third straight day, as medical practitioners embarked on a strike to press for higher wages after high inflation eroded incomes in the troubled southern African country.
On Thursday, only students and some junior doctors could be seen moving around the wards at Harare Central Hospital, the country’s biggest referral hospital, and Parirenyatwa Hospital.
A union representing doctors, the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors’ Association (ZHDA), called for the strike on Tuesday after failing to reach an agreement on a salary rise with the government.
Doctors have already rejected a government offer of a 60 percent salary rise, which they find a pittance.
A junior doctor currently earns about 400 Zimbabwean dollars ($33) as basic salary and an “on-call allowance” of approximately 1,000 Zimbabwean dollars ($83) a month.
Patients have faced a harrowing time amid the strike. A patient at Parirenyatwa, Diton Friday, who lost three fingers in a work accident early on Tuesday morning, was yet to see an orthopaedist at the hospital till 10:20am.
He was bandaged and given painkillers. Friday said he came in at 2am and was only attended to at 4am. At 8am, he had an X-ray taken by a radiologist.
“We are still waiting for the orthopaedic to come. We are not sure what’s going on,” he told Al Jazeera.
A doctor at Parirenyatwa who spoke on condition of anonymity said half of the junior doctors at the hospital did not turn up for work on Tuesday.
“The patients are really feeling the pinch of this as things tend to move slowly on the floor.”
Hectic for casualties
Junior doctors work under the supervision of senior doctors and are mostly responsible for the day-to-day medical requirements of patients.
A doctor at Parirenyatwa on Wednesday said things had been “hectic” for casualties.
“Major disciplines such as orthopaedic, neurologist, and general surgeons are not here. Junior doctors are key in the service delivery as they are the first port of call at hospitals,” the doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.
“Junior doctors are supposed to have accommodation at the hospital or close to the hospital. They don’t have accommodation at the hospital. A flat close to the hospital costs $100-200 and our salaries are nowhere near this.”
At Harare Central Hospital, it was the same story.
Although the hospital was open, by 12:30pm, patients had not been attended.
“I got here at 7am and we have not been served yet. We have just been in the queue and it’s not moving. We have not seen a doctor. A doctor came and said they are on strike and will attend to serious cases only,” a patient, Freddy Mukuru, told Al Jazeera on Tuesday afternoon.
Mukuru, who developed back complications, was mulling his next move.
Another doctor at the hospital, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said their demands for higher wages are real. “We really want to earn more money,” the doctor said.
Harare Central Hospital clinical director Dr Christopher Pasi said it was too early to assess the effect of the strike.
“The doctors came in and did their rounds. It’s very rare that they [junior doctors] all move out at once. If someone doesn’t pitch in at nine and comes in at 12pm with an excuse or something like that, it’s difficult to say they have not come for sure,” Pasi told Al Jazeera.
“We are not at a stage where we say we are overwhelmed because people didn’t come to work. We are still managing. The teams will be there during the day. At night that is when we will really know and assess the full impact,” he said.
Downplaying the severity of the strike, the clinical director said it is still a “developing situation”.
A nurse at the hospital, however, said senior doctors had also joined the strike, adding the situation was getting dire.
“Senior doctors are also not working. Some junior doctors are working and attending to emergency cases only. At night, there were no doctors on call,” she said.
ZHDA acting president Peter Mugombeyi last week formally notified heads of government hospitals of the planned strike in a letter saying doctors “simply do not have the means to continue coming to work because the salary is not sufficient”.
“Attempts to engage the employer have proved to be futile. No satisfactory agreement has been reached so far to insulate the doctors from the current high cost of living,” he said.