HARARE - Zimbabwe's government doctors went on strike Tuesday, demanding a salary increase to cover the soaring cost of living. The doctors, like many government workers, say inflation has made it impossible to meet basic needs.
Peter Gabriel Mugombeyi, acting president of the Hospital Doctors Association, says doctors will not resume work until the government reviews their salaries, set at less than $200 a month.
"We are not downing the tools per se," he said. "We are simply incapacitated. We simply do not have the means to report for work. The situation has abruptly deteriorated."
The country's biggest hospital in Harare is now accepting only patients with serious needs, and is referring others to private hospitals. Eighty-five-year-old Vasinara Julius is one of those turned away, says her husband, Mariro Aliabi.
"She has not been attended to," he said. "We were asked to go to a private hospital for more tests. I have sent my kids to go and check how much it costs. It is more expensive at private hospitals. She needs five tests done."
With the economy in steady decline, Zimbabwe's social services have been funded by foreign donors, such as the European Union and U.S. Agency for International Development. But the assistance has not been extended to salaries, resulting in low morale among health staff.
Obediah Moyo, Zimbabwe's health minister, says the government is aware of the doctors' concerns and has agreed to give them a 60 percent salary increase.
But workers are demanding more.
"The [government] last week offered 60 percent of our basic salary, but that's grossly inadequate," Mugombeyi said. "Because looking at the skyrocketing of prices in the market, we have fuel rising by 900 percent, food by 500 percent, our rents hiking and 60 percent is not quite suffice."
While a deal is being debated, however, patients in Zimbabwe are suffering without health care providers.
"We ... expect that our workers stick to the fact that they are in an essential service," Moyo said of the doctors. "As an essential service, you cannot just work up and disappear and leave your patient alone. We have to act responsibly."
Moyo said Zimbabwe's Heath Services Commission will proclaim health care to be an "essential service," which will forbid an indefinite strike by health workers.
In the meantime, public hospitals are operating on a reduced staff, and patients wait for care.