ZIMBABWE: Rural health personnel join stayawaybulawayo, 16 January 2007 (IRIN) - Zimbabwe's public health delivery system has ground to a halt as nurses and doctors in rural areas join their urban counterparts in a stayaway over low salaries and poor working conditions.
Health personnel, on average, earn less than US$240 (at the official exchange rate) a month and are demanding a salary hike of 8,000 percent, with hefty allowances to cushion themselves against an inflation rate of over 1,200 percent annually, and high transport and food costs.
A compromise reached between the health minister and striking personnel has collapsed, with the strikers declaring they will not resume work until their monthly salaries are raised to about US$20,000.
Kudakwashe Nyamutukwa, spokesperson for the Hospital Doctors Association, told IRIN, "The job action continues and until our demands are met ... doctors and nurses in the countryside, some of whom have been reporting for duty, have also started boycotting. This is only fair for them, because they are also affected by the low salaries and poor working conditions that we are protesting."
Nolwazi Sibanda, 27, a striking nurse in a government-run clinic in Madlambuzi, a poverty-ravaged hamlet in southern Zimbabwe, said, "First and foremost I need a sustainable salary, like any other professional. The houses that we live in are dilapidated and we are saying we need decent accommodation, and a car allowance so that we can buy our own cars.
"Besides, government should also equip its clinics and hospitals with appropriate medical requirements to ensure smooth service delivery. As we speak, there are no medicines in our clinic," she said.
"We had a meeting with the health minister last week and he said that government could only afford us a 300 percent salary increment, but we refused to take that offer because it fell far short of the Z$5 million (about US$20,000 at the official rate) that we are demanding, " said Nyamutukwa.
"Things are hard and living conditions for those who administer public healthcare have plummeted: you surely cannot have a doctor earning Z$60,000 (US$240) ... enough to purchase just 3kg of beef. It's unacceptable. Government should act quickly to avert a looming disaster - already patients are suffering; some have died needlessly because of the strike," he commented.
The job action in the past three weeks has left dozens of patients desperate for medical care stranded in rural as well as urban areas. A few well-heeled Zimbabweans have resorted to private health institutions, which charge tariffs unaffordable to a general public grappling with an unemployment level above 80 percent and inflation that has reached 1,281 percent, the highest in the world.
According to the Central Statistics Office, the cost of living has continued to surge, with a family of six needing US$1,406 to subsist in January 2007, compared to the US$982 a monthly it required in December last year.
Analysts have warned that Zimbabwe may experience more work boycotts and street protests as hardship escalates, sparking political violence against a government accused by many of ruining the once vibrant economy of a country that used to be known as the breadbasket of southern Africa.
Deputy health minister Edwin Muguti told IRIN the government had revised a car loan scheme for health public workers from about US$2,798 to about US$16,000, and added that further salary adjustments were on the cards.
"We acknowledge that the strike has crippled the health sector, and many people have been forced to seek treatment at private institutions, which are often expensive to consult. Now ... car loan scheme adjustments [are done], and we have started looking into salary adjustments. But one thing for sure is that government will not afford the Z$5 million these people are demanding - it's just too much for us," said Muguti.
Patients and the general public, stung by the crippling industrial action, have no kind words for the authorities.
"Our government is so callous; it seems they cannot see that we are suffering," said Thembisiwe Mpofu, a patient at a government-run clinic. "I have nagging internal pains, for which I had to end up borrowing money from family members to visit a private doctor, all because government does not want to increase these people's salaries. It's unfair - people will surely die."
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]