Zimbabwe's collapsing public health sector could plunge into total chaos this week, after long-suffering State doctors issued a warning to go on strike on Wednesday - unless President Robert Mugabe's stone-broke government honours its promise of improving their conditions of work.
This comes as hundreds of thousands of civil servants, who include teachers, are at serious loggerheads with their employer - following the failure by the government to pay them their salaries on time, as well as bonuses, as promised by Mugabe last year despite the parlous state of the national fiscus.
"In light of the recommendations gathered from the nationwide consultations, and guided by the notice and petition served to the minister of Health and the Health Services Board more than two weeks ago, the (doctors') association wishes to announce that with effect from Wednesday 15 February, there shall be a fully-fledged nationwide industrial action.
"All doctors from consultant level to our new JRMOs are advised to take heed of this call," the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association (ZHDA) said at the weekend.
Although ZHDA president, Edgar Munatsi, confirmed the planned strike to the Daily News yesterday, Health and Child Care minister, David Parirenyatwa, said he was yet to receive official communication about the industrial action.
"We are very keen that patients are not compromised. I always try hard to look at the interests of all our doctors so that patients' welfare is not jeopardised," Parirenyatwa said.
Asked to comment on some of the demands being made by the doctors, he said he did not think it was appropriate for him "to negotiate through the press".
ZHDA wants government to revise upwards, to a minimum of $720 call allowances for the least paid doctors, and that the Health Services Board urgently implements the agreed duty-free framework for all government doctors.
"The association remains puzzled with the lipstick approach by the ministry of Health to honour the agreed on-call allowances with our previous leadership. It is on record that the on-call allowance must have progressively been raised to $720.
"Our doctors, including well-trained consultants, travel to work on public transport despite the earlier promise to unveil a motor vehicle duty free facility to the sector," ZHDA said.
The country's public health sector is grappling with myriad problems, including having to contend with shortages of critical drugs and antiquated hospital equipment.
Despite these humongous problems, Mugabe's misfiring government has once again allocated a measly budget to the health services sector this year.
In his budget presentation in December, Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa reduced the vote for health from $331 million to a disappointing $282 million - a figure that falls way short of meeting the big demands of the public health sector.
As Zimbabwe's political and economic rot has escalated over the past five years, the health sector has experienced severe problems.
Recently, hospitals warned that they were left with two weeks' supply of a major drug used during surgical operations.
This was after the country's biggest referral hospital, Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals, said it was left with two weeks' stock of atracurium - an anaesthetic drug used in addition to other drugs for muscle relaxation during surgery - after major drug supplier, GSK, pulled out of the Zimbabwean market last year.
Last year, the country's other major referral hospitals also had to suspend many services as a result of the shortage of drugs, including painkillers - exposing how much things have fallen apart in the country since the early 2000s.
United Bulawayo Hospitals (UBH) and Harare Central Hospital were among the major health facilities that had to suspend normal services as a result of drug shortages, including pethidine - a synthetic compound used as a painkiller, especially for women in labour and during Caesarean operations.
And Binga District Hospital, which is situated in one of Zimbabwe's poorest regions, was also forced to scale back its services as a result of water and electricity shortages.
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