CAPE TOWN, South Africa – A strike by doctors and nurses in Zimbabwe is causing “untold human suffering and loss of life,” said the country’s Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace.
Sick and injured people are turned away from the main state hospitals “and their only other option is to go to private hospitals, which is unaffordable for most Zimbabweans,” Alouis Chaumba, who heads the commission, said in a Jan. 28 telephone interview from the capital, Harare.
“There is no solution in sight” to the strike that began in late December, he said. “The government must take action now to end it, as this concerns life and death.”
No one knows how many Zimbabweans have died as a result of the strike because it is ignored by the country’s state-controlled media, Mr. Chaumba said.
Almost all media in Zimbabwe are under government control. Zimbabwe has the fastest-declining economy in the world, a brain drain of professionals, an inflation rate of more than 1,000 percent and escalating corruption.
Noting that “the hardships the people of this country are facing are wholesale,” the commission called on President Robert Mugabe’s government “to immediately set priorities that put the people first.”
Zimbabwe, with a population of about 12 million, has a collapsed health delivery system and a disintegrating education system, the commission said. Its paralyzed agricultural, manufacturing and mining sectors are also “in the intensive care unit,” it said.
“The economy should be managed prudently if the human suffering is to be halted,” the commission said in a statement in mid-January. It noted that, while most Zimbabweans “are hardworking, innovative and resilient, 2007 has started with huge problems that threaten their survival if nothing is done to stop the decline in the standards of living.”
In June, Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo said there is one doctor for every 15,000 Zimbabweans, and hospitals have few or no medicines.
The demands of doctors and nurses for increased salaries and improved working conditions “are genuine,” Mr. Chaumba said, noting that their pay is inadequate and basic medicines and other equipment they need to do their jobs effectively are not available in hospitals.
“The doctors have a right to strike if the employer is insensitive to their needs,” which are not excessive, the commission said in its statement. “The longer the dispute is not resolved, the more the ordinary people will suffer.”
Chaumba said that the government summoned army medics to work at some state hospitals in mid-January, and student nurses are working as nurses.
“To actively foster the exodus of … doctors by refusing to take them seriously or address their valid concerns will ensure that this disaster only gets worse,” the independent Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights said in a Jan. 10 statement, noting that “maternal and infant care has suffered especially badly” in the strike.
Deaths of children under the age of 5 have been increasing steadily, and the country’s maternal mortality rate is the same as that of war-torn Somalia, the association said.
Noting that school fees rose sharply at the start of the school year in mid-January, the justice and peace commission said, “A stroll in our residential areas during school hours will bear witness to the large numbers of (school-age) children roaming the streets.”
School fees, including books and other educational materials for which parents are expected to pay, exceed parents’ salaries, Mr. Chaumba said, noting that there has been an exodus of teachers to other countries.
“Once a beacon of Africa, the education system is now a pale shadow of itself,” the commission said.