By Admore Marambanyika
Health care workers in Zimbabwe are up in arms with government’s plans to criminalize their recruitment to work in foreign countries as part of efforts to reduce a medical brain drain.
Vice President and Health Minister, Constantino Chiwenga, delivered the ‘bad’ news recently when he said the country would introduce a law to make it illegal for foreign nations to hire local health care workers.
Chiwenga had said; “If one deliberately recruits and make the country suffer because it lacks the required professionals, that’s a crime against humanity. If people die in hospitals because there are no nurses and doctors and somebody who has been so irresponsible of not training their nationals but wanting poor countries to train for them it’s a crime. That must be taken seriously.”
Zimbabwe’s Association of Doctors for Human Rights reacted to the disclosure saying any attempt to prevent health care workers from migrating for greener pastures would be illegal.
“Also in our constitution, the Zimbabwe constitution, it guarantees citizens have the right to move freely within the country or leave the country. We don’t know why those comments were made by the honorable minister of health. The government continue to use scare tactics and command approach to solving health care problems,” said Dr Norman Matara, who heads the association while responding to the media on the issue.
Dr Matara, told the media that government’s plan to criminalize foreign recruitment of health care workers was shocking since they were being forced to leave by harsh circumstances.
“The government should note that health workers are not being pulled away from the country but pushed away from the country by the meager salaries they are getting,” he said.
Heath care workers have pereially been complaining of poor working conditions that include poor remuneration, lack of equipment, lack of sundries, lack of medicines in the hospitals that they work in.
Dr Matara urged government to improve working conditions and pay a living wage if it was sincere on retaining critical healthcare skills.
Thousands of healthcare workers have left the country over the past two decades in search for better prospects.
The Zimbabwe Health Services Board, in November, revealed that more than 4,000 nurses have left the country since 2021 while the Zimbabwe Medical Association says the country was left with only 3,500 doctors for a population of almost 16 million people.
Medical care provided by doctors and hospitals in Zimbabwe is below average compared to the world population. The country provides 1.7 hospital beds per 1,000 inhabitants. According to the World Health Organisation, the global mean is 2.9 beds, with about 1,220 physicians in Zimbabwe, there are about 0.08 doctors per 1000 inhabitants but the standard is 1.50 physicians per 1,000 inhabitants.
The situation could now be worse than it was five years ago when doctor-patient ratio at public health institutions stood at 1:250 000 following the recent massive skills flight.
The World Health Organisation prescribes a 1: 10 000 to 25 000 ratio in Third World countries, translating to at least eight general practitioners and four specialists per provincial hospital.
Health care workers regularly go on strike over poor pay and working conditions. In 2018, Chiwenga described medical doctors as ‘skilled labourers’ when he fired more than 16 000 health workers who were striking over poor salaries and working conditions.
The government has also continued its onslaught on health workers by curtailing their rights through the enactment of the Health Services Amendment Act with draconian provisions that:
- No collective job action, lawful or unlawful, can continue for an uninterrupted 72-hour period or more in any given 14-day period.
- Notice of any collective job action must be given in writing 48 hours before it starts.
- Any individual who is a member of the governing body of any trade union that incites or organises any collective job action in the health service could be guilty of an offense and liable to a fine or to imprisonment of up to six months or to both.
The provisions imposes sanctions against strike threats is contrary to freedom of expression and the principles of freedom of association.