HARARE - Specialists doctors at Zimbabwe state hospitals have gone on strike, paralysing a public health sector that is barely functional at the best of times due to an overload of HIV/AIDS-related cases amid an acute shortage of drugs and equipment.
The more senior and experienced specialist doctors had kept public hospitals running after intern doctors, known as junior doctors in Zimbabwe, and nurses stopped coming to work in August to press for more pay and better working conditions.
The specialist doctors, among them surgeons, neurologists and gynecologists, went on strike on Thursday after reaching a deadlock on salary reviews with the Health Services Board (HSB).
Some of the country's biggest hospitals such as Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals and Harare Central hospital both in the capital and Mpilo General hospital in the second largest city of Bulawayo were from yesterday discharging some patients, advising them to seek treatment from private doctors and hospitals.
The senior doctors are understood to be demanding that their salaries be paid in hard currency and not in the local dollar, which hit by inflation of 231 million percent continues to lose value faster than any other currency on earth.
Hospitals Doctors Association (HDA) president Amos Severengi on Friday confirmed that specialist doctors had embarked on an industrial action and adding that they would not return to work until their salaries are pegged in foreign currency.
Severegi said: "The specialists have joined junior doctors and nurses on strike. As I speak, Parirenyatwa hospital is discharging patients because no one can attend to them. Our demands should be met before we go back to work."
Severengi said the HSB told the doctors that the government had no capacity to pay them in foreign currency. State doctors currently earn between $50 000 and $100 000 monthly which they want hiked to US$2 000 per month.
A visit to Parirenyatwa and Harare Central hospitals revealed the suffering of patients because of the strike.
"I have been asked to leave the hospital this morning because the doctors and nurses are on strike," said a patient at Parirenyatwa.
The patient, who identified herself as Chipo Mutsago, said hospital authorities had told her "to consult private doctors and hospitals".
Doctors who spoke on condition of anonymity vowed not to return to work until all their grievances were met.
"What I can tell you right now is that I am not at work, and until we are paid what I want I am not going to work," a Harare-based doctor said.
Health minister David Parirenyatwa confirmed the strike. "I was informed on Thursday of the strike by the specialist doctors. The government is looking into their grievances and appeals to them to return to work for the sake of the suffering patients," he said.
"We are working tirelessly to improve their remuneration and working conditions," he added.
State hospitals are the source of health services for the majority of Zimbabweans. But standards and service at the health institutions that were once lauded as some of the best public hospitals in Africa have collapsed after years of under-funding and mismanagement.