The government has put Zimbabwe National Army doctors on standby as the situation at the country’s public hospitals continues to deteriorate due to a month-long strike by doctors, Health and Child Care minister David Parirenyatwa has said.
BY XOLISANI NCUBE
Parirenyatwa (DP) told our senior reporter Xolisani Ncube (XN) yesterday that he was concerned about the prolonged strike by doctors, disclosing that President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s office was now handling the negotiations to end the impasse.
The minister, who has been under fire for allegedly failing to resolve the strike, said the demands by the doctors were genuine and he felt that Zimbabwe should prioritise the health sector.
Below are excerpts from the interview.
XN: It’s day 24 (yesterday) since doctors went on strike. Do you have any plans, tangible plans, to end the job boycott that has paralysed the health delivery system?
DP: We are taking the strike by doctors very seriously and right from the start, we have had a lot of negotiations through the Health Services Board (HSB) under the tripartite forum.
Usually when things like this occur — the strike — and when people are negotiating, it is always better not to negotiate through the press.
Once we start negotiating through the press, there is always escalation. So we have taken a stance that we continue to talk because we believe that the concerns by doctors and other health practitioners are very genuine and need to be addressed holistically.
I am aware that the doctors also agree that we are working so hard to convince (the Ministry of Finance). To be quite honest with you, the biggest challenge is the finance.
We all agree that there is a need for people to be cushioned a bit in terms of allowances, on-call allowances, salaries and so on, but all these things centre around finance.
I am glad that now the matter has been escalated to a higher office, the Office of the President and Cabinet [OPC]. This is how serious the matter has now become.
It has been long. The grievances are genuine and they need to be addressed in such a way that it does not begin to disturb other areas of government.
XN: The doctors have complained about drug shortages in hospitals, they are saying: ‘we can’t treat patients with prayers, we are not prophets.’ As Health minister, what are you doing to address these issues?
DP: We have a number of initiatives that have been put in place to ensure we have drugs at our institutions. This is a very serious matter, which I believe does not confront the Ministry of Health alone.
We have the health levy, which has raised $22 million to buy more drugs. But we still need a lot of money from the treasury so that we are able to provide a comprehensive health package to our people.
We don’t want to hear that our people do not have drips, do not have drugs and that is what government should commit itself to.
I was talking to the president recently and he committed himself to fund these things, the tools of the trade, the environment where doctors and nurses are working from.
Things must improve, gloves must be available, emergency services must be kicking. I think these things are solvable in the short- to medium-term.
XN: Do you have statistics of casualties during the strike? Do you know of any deaths caused by the strike?
DP: When the strike continues like it has done, you find a lot of people not willing to come to hospitals because they know that there is a strike.
We don’t then know what happens in communities and it is very sad. that is why we think it is urgent that our doctors go back to work.
They have made their point, they have been out for a number of days, and they have been heard.
The only person who is now suffering is the patient. They have been heard, heard fully and government is in the process of addressing their issues.
XN: Zimbabweans are saying government is prioritising all that has to do with political power and not the welfare of people. Government is buying vehicles for chiefs yet doctors only want a duty-free facility to import vehicles.
DP: Yes, I think those are the kind of issues that I have said with regard to our priorities as a country. Our priorities should recognise the importance of health.
I have advocated that the health sector should be given the top priority. As a country, let us convince ourselves that health is a priority.
Often when we say let us improve the conditions of service for our health workers, others would come and say, what about us?
So if you convince each other that health is a priority, if you see salaries of doctors and think it is important for them to be increased, it would be better for us.
If we increase the salaries of doctors and nurses, people should not complain because it is a top priority. We need money for drugs, ambulances and other essential services; we would be doing ourselves a favour.
We don’t want to lose these doctors who then go to other countries. We want them to train here and be specialists so that we can attract medical tourism as a country.
XN: What is the doctor to patient ratio in Zimbabwe?
DP: We have a high ratio of over 200 000 people per one doctor, that is not acceptable. What we need to do is to be able to keep our doctors here.
They should not just concentrate on Harare or Bulawayo; they should go all over the districts and provinces. And to achieve that, we need to train more, absorb them more, make them happier and we know that some are getting allowances from the Global Fund, but those are donors and donors can withdraw anytime.
XN: In case the doctors stick to their guns and refuse to go back before their demands are met, are there any contingency plans to alleviate the plight of patients?
DP: What we normally do when we are faced with such a situation, all emergency services should be kept and we usually get support from the uniformed forces.
We have put that on alert so that we can keep our emergency services running. We have asked some doctors from the uniformed services to be on standby, but it is not a sustainable position.
We should be able to have our doctors back at work as a matter of urgency.
XN: Your ministry has been issuing threats against the striking doctors over the job action. Why did you choose that approach instead of negotiations?
DP: As I have indicated, the matter is now before the highest office and proper attention is being given to the matter.
The OPC is attending to all those issues. as a minister, I would like to see doctors at work for the sake of patients.
We have heard their demands and a proper solution is being worked upon by finance as well as the highest office in the land.
XN: How far have you gone in absorbing nurses who have been outside the system for many years?
DP: As you know, last year we absorbed 2 000 nurses who were unemployed.
We have agreed with (Finance minister) Mr (Patrick) Chinamasa that he should take some more and he has agreed to take some more, at least 2 400 nurses, so that we fill the gaps.