WHILE the rest of the world is grappling with the effects of coronavirus (Covid-19), which has resulted in the death of over 552 000 people worldwide and the collapse of major economies, Zimbabwe is, in addition to tackling the pandemic, confronted by yet another crisis — discontented frontline health care workers, including nurses and doctors.
Placards inscribed with messages directed at the government including “NO US$ NO WORK, Hatizvidi, Ngazviende (we don’t want this, it must stop), Enough is Enough, Health has gone to the DOGS! Mari haichakwana kubhadhara rent (we can no longer afford to pay rent), have become synonymous with nurses who are on strike over poor remuneration and working conditions.
Their major demand is to be paid their salaries in United States (US) dollars or at the prevailing parallel market rate, owing to the rapid deterioration of the Zimbabwe dollar on the black market.
With month-on-month inflation nearing 100 percent, Zimbabwe’s economy continues to decline, and the tremors are being felt everywhere as evidenced by soaring prices of basic commodities, long queues outside banks and fuel stations, cash and foreign currency shortages.
Nurses are pressing the government for change through strikes and demonstrations, demanding better salaries, badly needed hospital supplies, functioning medical equipment and, in light of Covid-19, personal protective equipment (PPE).
They insist that if the government does not address these concerns, they will not return to work. On the other hand, the government is adamant that it has no foreign currency to pay the nurses and other civil servants.
Zimbabwe Professional Nurses Union (ZPNU) secretary-general Douglas Chikobvu told the Daily News on Sunday that nurses in the country were living in a deplorable state and in abject poverty.
“The economy is fast re-dollarising, but our salaries are still pegged in Zimbabwe dollars at $3 500 for the least paid worker. What this means is that nurses are earning an average of US$35 per month. In real life, rentals, food, medical aid and other essential bills require US dollars upfront hence we are trapped in a situation which we cannot sustain.
“How does the government expect a nurse with a family to meet his or her day to day expenses with a salary that is way below the poverty datum line?
“The breadbasket for a family of five as at May was pegged at $8 884, yet nurses earn as little as $3 500. This doesn’t make any sense at all,” Chikobvu said.
He further indicated that in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, nurses in many hospitals lacked personal protective equipment such as surgical face masks and scrubs, exposing them to the lethal virus.
“In most hospitals, we face a dire shortage of personal protective clothing and equipment at a time when we are fighting this global pandemic.
“We have been trying hard to deliver under such a constrained environment.
“Tools of the trade are an eyesore hence we cannot reach quality targeted health outcomes in our quest to deliver best healthcare as nurses.
“We are working in an environment where there is too much improvisation and it is causing a lot of stress and burnout, in addition to earning close to nothing.
“Our nurses are at a risk of contracting the virus due to lack of adequate PPE and this increases the risk of the disease spreading at a local level because nurses are not only restricted to hospitals, they are also part of various communities across the country,” he said.
This comes as the country’s confirmed Covid-19 cases are now above 900, including over 300 recoveries and 12 deaths.
Local cases have also been soaring, with healthcare workers, including nurses, testing positive through their interaction with patients infected with the killer virus.
“We believe that the government should be practical in addressing the heart-breaking and saddening plight of nurses because it is a critical service we offer.
“The government should try to award nurses a decent salary in US dollars and also a graded risk allowance based on exposure, not this one size fits all approach of US$75 being implemented across the board. That’s ridiculous,” Chikobvu said.
The government last month offered all civil servants a blanket 50 percent salary increase and US$75 Covid-19 allowances valid for three months.
Finance minister Mthuli Ncube indicated that the government would not pay the US$75 allowance in cash, but would deposit it in Nostro accounts.
“The US$75 was given to civil servants to cushion them against the economic hardships that we are experiencing.
“Negotiations to improve their salaries are still on-going via the appropriate channels.
“Yes we have said that they should open Nostro accounts and receive bank cards which will be used to pay for whatever they need.
“They are not going to get the money in cash because we don’t want them to start getting into the streets and becoming money changers and partaking in black market activities,” Ncube recently said.
Zimbabwe Nurses Association (Zina) president Enock Dongo said nurses were willing to engage in a “fruitful” dialogue with the government to end the on-going strike.
“We as nurses believe in fruitful dialogue to avert the current labour impasse, but all this should be done in good faith so that health services are offered to our citizens.
“Dialogue is a solution, but given the body language of the government, where we see it deploying the police and arresting nurses expressing their grievances through demonstrations, this seems like cosmetic dialogue meant to buy time rather than resolve the challenges we are facing.
“As the government continues to show a lack of urgency or seems unfazed with our incapacitation, we will continue pursuing our democratic rights until our demands are met.
“Our demands are very clear — we want our salaries in US dollars and graded risk allowances,” Dongo said.
The government has in the past resorted to firing striking nurses, vowing to replace them with newly-trained and retired nurses.
Last year, Vice President Constantino Chiwenga dismissed 16 000 nurses in his capacity as the supervisor of the government social services cluster.
In a statement, Chiwenga indicated that the Health Services Board (HSB) had conceded to the nurses’ demands by releasing over $17 million to the Health ministry to pay outstanding allowances for nurses who were on strike
“What makes the whole action deplorable and reprehensible is the fact that as agreed, the government released and transferred $17,114.446 into the account of the Ministry of Health and Child Care for on-payment to the striking nurses.
“While this demonstrates good faith on the part of government, the prompt transfers which have been effected against demonstrable economic challenges facing the country has not, quite surprisingly, persuaded the striking nurses to go back to their stations in the interest of saving lives and helping helpless patients under their care.
“The government now regards this lack of remorse as politically motivated and thus as going beyond concerns of conditions of service and worker welfare,” he said then.
This time around, the government is adamant that it does not have the foreign currency to pay nurses and other civil servants, due to the severity of the economic crisis.
Acting Health and Child Care minister Amon Murwira told the Daily News on Sunday that the only way to solve the problem of striking health workers, including nurses, was to engage in dialogue.
“Taking to the streets and demonstrating will not solve the challenges that we are facing in our health sector.
“What we have always told nurses and other health workers is that the government’s door is always open for dialogue and that is what we will continue emphasising.
“We all need to come to the negotiating table cognisant of the challenges we are facing as a nation and come up with a solution that benefits everyone involved.
“The government has offered a salary increase as well as a Covid-19 allowance to civil servants, including nurses. This is a sign that we are committed to alleviating the challenges that the workers are facing,” Murwira said.
Asked if the government has the capacity to meet the nurses’ demand to be paid in US dollars, Murwira said there was need to give dialogue and team work a chance to find the most practical route for the good of the national health system.
While strikes in the health sector date back to the later former president Robert Mugabe era, in 2018 under President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s “new dispensation”, the situation in public hospitals deteriorated and reached breaking point, prompting nurses, doctors and other health workers to down tools and demand better working conditions and remuneration.
To date, their demands have not been met, leaving the country’s health sector in a shambles as the two conflicting parties are failing to devise a mutually beneficial solution.