A MASS exodus of nurses and other medical professionals due to the economic uncertainty and general poor conditions of service is piling pressure on the country’s already broken health delivery system, a situation worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to the Zimbabwe Nurses Association (Zina), the ministry of Health and Child Care is not helping matters with its bully tactics, a development the association says is a recipe for disaster as nurses have resorted to silently quitting en-masse.
The government last week announced plans to ban doctors and nurses from going on strike for more than three days under new proposed amendments to the Health Services Act.
Under the changes, worker representatives who face accusations of inciting nurses and doctors to embark on a strike action deemed illegal could be jailed for three years in a move the authorities argue is necessary to “instil discipline” in the health sector.
In 2018, Health and Child Care minister Constantino Chiwenga, who doubles as Vice-President, made news after he took the unusual step of expelling 16 000 striking nurses vowing to replace them with newly-trained and retired nurses.
“We are in a war (Covid-19) situation and the people that are fighting that war have to be motivated, but sadly they are demotivated and intimidated by the system. They (government) are using threats, instilling fear in nurses while closing all avenues for dialogue.
“They think nurses have been silenced, but the reality is that the nurses are leaving the country in numbers though we have no ready statistics of those that have left in recent weeks,” said Zina president Enock Dongo .
This is not isolated to public health institutions. Private hospitals such as Bulawayo’s Catholic-run Mater Dei Hospital and municipal clinics have not been spared either.
“The hospital is desperately short of nurses. They are returning to the UK in droves. Our staff is exhausted,” Mater Dei board member Gavin Stephens said in a memorandum last week on the state of affairs at the hospital.
In an interview on Wednesday, Bulawayo deputy mayor Mlandu Ncube said: “We are doing our best to look after our nurses under these trying times but everyone knows that we are not in control of inflation that is eroding their salaries, forcing them to resign.”
The city council was already grappling with a shortage of nurses before the latest exodus.
“In yesteryear, nurses would choose to work for council ahead of public institutions, but the situation is different now as we have also been hard hit as our nurses are also leaving for greener pastures in the UK,” Ncube lamented.
This comes at a time both public and private hospitals are overwhelmed as the
Covid-19 third wave sweeps across the country, with other institutions now only attending to severe and critical faces, turning away patients with mild symptoms.
On Tuesday, Information minister Monica Mutsvangwa, in a post-cabinet briefing, announced that the Health Service Board (HSB) is now recruiting retired nurses for the Covid-19 vaccination drive in a tacit admission that the health delivery system is overwhelmed.
Soldiers have also been roped into the vaccination campaign.
Deputy Health and Child Care minister Dr John Mangwiro refused to comment on the mass exodus of nurses when reached for comment on Wednesday, claiming that this was a “human resources department matter.”
However, the Zina president warned: “This is a crisis we are facing as a country and this will cripple the health delivery system as we go forward.”
“There is no way you can expect good service delivery from disgruntled workers. They will keep quiet and leave the country or remain in the country, but not giving any service and, in the end, the citizenry pay the ultimate price and suffer from poor service,” Dongo warned.
Itai Rusike, the executive director of the Community Working Group on Health (CWGH) weighed in: “Sadly, the external migration continues to raise pressure on our already broken health delivery service that has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. A loss and shortage of health personnel translates to poor quality services, low access and poor health outcomes.”
Zimbabwe’s nurses operate in poorly equipped state-run institutions and patients are expected to supply basics such as drugs and even equipment.
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