Picture: 123RF/SAMSONOVS
Picture: 123RF/SAMSONOVS

Zimbabwean doctors say they have “begrudgingly” called off a six-week long strike that crippled the country’s fragile health sector.

The end of the strike by doctors is likely to give some respite to President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government, which lately has been hard-pressed by growing disquiet among its employees over the worsening economic environment and poor working conditions.

Among the  demands the doctors had was that government pay their salaries in (US) dollars and also adequately supply public hospitals with medical sundries and medicines.

In a statement on Thursday, the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association (ZHDA) said the industrial action, which began in early December, was a reminder to authorities that the health sector was “deteriorating” and in need of urgent intervention.

“It should not take 40 days with doctors on strike for the ministry of health and child care to act and restore normal service delivery in government health institutions,” the association said.  

One of the concessions the doctors managed to get from the government was a written commitment that it would improve the supply of medicines, and medical and surgical sundries at public hospitals. The government also committed to unfreezing critical doctor posts at central, provincial and district hospitals in a bid to relieve pressure on the current staff.

But the association said that the government had refused to to pay salaries in dollars. Observers said this was a message by the government to other sectors of its employees that it would not give into growing demand for salaries paid in forex. Teachers are the latest government’s workers to demand salaries in dollars.

Vice-president Constantino Chiwenga, who has the cabinet mandate to negotiate with health professionals, recently told journalists that “the government does not print US dollars”, as he shot down the push for their remuneration to be settled in forex.

The doctors said that, with no salary review and frozen December salaries in the tough economic environment, it was a dilemma as how they would report to work daily. “That said, our members have begrudgingly resumed work with immediate effect from today as dialogue continues.”  

Mxolisi Ngwenya, a doctor and the former spokesperson of the ZHDA, told Business Day that the strike was called off as divisions had emerged among the doctors, and the government was also not giving into their demands.

“Members went through December without salaries and the Health Service Board threatened hearings on resumption of work. In addition to that, state media propaganda posted every two days that we were back at work,” said Ngwenya.

“It will, however, be hard to go back to work as we have no bus fares and fuel, despite promises being made to address this. Medication ... [is] still in short supply; so is protective clothing and equipment. If quality of service is poor at government institutions, it’s not on us, we are doing the best we can with whatever is available.”

Finance minister Mthuli Ncube allocated $694m to the health ministry in the budget last November, but with 66% spent on employment costs, experts say very little is left for capital expenditure.