by Tichaona Chifamba
HARARE, Dec. 4 (Xinhua) -- The provision of health services at public hospitals has been severely affected by a strike by junior doctors which entered its fourth day Tuesday.
The doctors went on strike Saturday citing several challenges, among them unsatisfactory working conditions, low salaries and lack of basic medicines and equipment.
At least one referral hospital in Bulawayo, the second largest city in Zimbabwe, has recommended the closure of some of its departments as a strike by junior doctors at public health institutions entered the fourth day.
A memorandum from the directorate of clinical services at United Bulawayo Hospitals to all heads of department recommended the closure of the outpatients department till further notice and to continue with emergency operations only.
The memorandum, a copy of which was seen by Xinhua, also recommended the discharge of stable patients who were considered safe on treatment as outpatients and that casualty officers should admit patients in liaison with teams on call.
"Management appreciates the burden on the middle-level House Medical Officers/Senior Registrars and consultants as well as the need for the continued care for the critically ill patients," the memorandum said.
A statement from the doctors' representative body, the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association, said Tuesday that the strike was continuing and accused Health and Child Care Minister Obadiah Moyo of exhibiting an "I don't care" attitude towards their grievances.
"All central hospitals in the country are now operating at very low capacity. There is fear that if immediate and robust interventions are not done to address the crisis, all public health institutions might collapse," the association's information department said in a statement.
A source at the country's biggest health referral center, Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals, told Xinhua that the junior doctors had not yet returned to work by 11 am Tuesday, although the casualty (outpatients) department was open.
"Only senior doctors are working here," he said.
Another source at Chitungwiza General Hospital, south of Harare, said the doctors were still on strike but the casualty department remained open.
The government on Monday urged striking doctors to go back to work while it was looking into their grievances.
Health and Child Care Minister Obadiah Moyo told the Herald newspaper that the strike was illegal.
"The junior doctors embarked on industrial action, but this is illegal. They should have gone through a process of notifying the Health Services Board and making sure that everyone is aware, unfortunately that wasn't done.
He said the government had decided to look into their grievances, especially those which it could resolve as a ministry starting with the availability of fuel and also improving the possibility of doctors arriving at work on time.
Moyo said one of the drawbacks was that of fuel and the government was making arrangements for it to be availed.
"I have given an instruction that all the health institutions which have got petrol and diesel tanks should have them filled. I am going to be negotiating with the Minister of Energy to make sure that fuel is made available at all the health institutions.
"We also look at petrol stations where we can make arrangements for our doctors to be given priority to draw fuel, so that they don't spend the whole day in the queue. We want them to be working on the patients rather than being in the queues," he said.
The country is experiencing fuel shortages which have resulted in a lot of productive time being lost as motorists spend it queuing at filling stations.
Moyo said the payment of doctors in U.S. dollars as per their demand was not possible at the moment.
"There is no foreign currency in the country to buy medicines for use in hospitals, and that particular aspect of paying individuals in U.S. dollars is not possible.
"The President has been encouraging the pharmacists to sell drugs in local currency because there is no foreign currency. People cannot get foreign currency." he said.
Junior doctors also went on strike early in the year citing the same reasons, leading to the disruption of services at almost all central and provincial hospitals.