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Genocide by privatization: The story of the Juniors doctor’s strike.

"One more such victory and I am lost." These were the words blurted out by general Pyrrhus who defeated the Romans in an almighty war. In as much as he had won the war, the general realised that he had lost so much during the battle, hence the term Pyrrhic battle was coined; when you win but lose so much. Such a pyrrhic victory has been gained by the ZANU PF government with the ending of the Junior doctor’s strike. The doctors recently called off their 5-month long strike against Mnangagwa’s government and the toil and loss from this battle are both short term and will have a long-lasting effect, not only on the government’s political legitimacy but where it matters most, the people.

Firstly, we cannot blame the doctors for striking. The finance minister Mthuli Ncube came into government with his calculations and theories on how to fix the country’s economy. The simplest logic was to cut government expenditure as much as possible. This expenditure was mainly civil servant salaries. The re-introduction of the Zimbabwe dollar and its forewarned loss of value resulted in Zimbabwe doctors’ salaries dropping from USD$1500-USD$4000 to as little as USD$100. In addition, doctors had no working conditions vital to perform their duties. Reports of condoms being used as medical gloves blew up in the media. Such a drop in earning capacity would lead to a revolution in most countries. But this is Zimbabwe, we start by complaining, hope for change and then if nothing happens, we either protest or leave. The doctors thankfully firstly chose the former.

All things considered; doctors are the most powerful group in protesting against government. This is because of the bargaining power that they hold. Numbering around 1600 doctors, the short supply of doctors (this is an African fact, not just Zimbabwe) means that when they complain, governments usually have to listen because they cannot easily replace doctors nor the skills that they hold. The doctors led by their union the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association (ZHDA) used a variety of labour activism. They marched in the streets of Harare, they initiated go-slows and strikes at the hospitals and they collectively bargained for the most part against the government. A novel idea was also providing their basic services for free through mobile clinics in partnership with other civil society members.

The doctor’s actions were done with the government’s axe hanging over their heads. And that axe began to fall. With every swing, it fell harder and harder. The first swing was government threatening to fire the doctors who did not come to work. The courts were used to condemn doctor’s strikes as illegal and they were given 48 hours to return to work When that did not work, they were fired. When this was not enough, the leader of ZHDA was abducted but fortunately returned. The resolve of the doctors, on the whole, remained strong. The government took it up a notch and decided to use military doctors and hire doctors from Cuba to nullify the doctor’s actions.

The final, winning stroke from the government was establishing a rival union called Progressive Doctors Association of Zimbabwe. Funded by the government, this union has as its secretary-general, a doctor who has been aligned with ZANU PF since his student years, Dr. S Vuma. This divide and conquer tactic has been repeatedly used by the government against other unions in other industries such as agriculture and mining. This effectively destroyed the doctor's most powerful asset of speaking with one voice against the government. Every single action taken by the government was done primarily not out of concern of a dilapidating healthcare system but to show their force and refusal to bow down to doctor’s demands for living wages. Secondly, their goal has been to absolve themselves of their constitutional duty by privatising healthcare.

As much as the doctors were not going to work in public hospitals, those who could (mainly the senior doctors) were still going to work in private hospitals and their surgeries. In these surgeries, they could guarantee healthy incomes in United States dollars. What of the junior doctors who still do not have the ability to run their own surgeries? Canada, USA and mainly the United Kingdom have opened their doors to them. The UK health system already holds 102 different nationalities in it. Zimbabweans have the 11th highest number with 4 049 health workers. Nearly half of the 1600 doctors have applied to leave work for these greener pastures. As the public hospitals run out of doctors, public officials are personally detached from this situation. I say detached because ironically as the strike was happening, the Vice President, General Chiwenga was deathly sick. He didn’t rely on the public hospitals but ferried himself to South Africa and China for medical attention. He was not alone. Besides himself and other government officials, the richer class of Zimbabweans have begun to fill the log sheets of private hospitals in South Africa and India. The health care system has become an area showing with deadly results the widening gap between the haves and the have nots.

This widening gap is most evident in the increasing privatization of the medical industry in Zimbabwe. It started with the pharmacies where public pharmacies are virtually non-existent anymore. Medical aid has become increasingly expensive to the point most people do not have it, preferring to prepare for the inevitable by having funeral plans. It then moved on to the better health services not being in public hospitals but private. Most worryingly, it is quite telling that the doctor’s strikes were ended not by government’s actions, but the charity of the richest Zimbabwean cutting a temporary deal to get doctors back into the hospital wards. Although Strive Masiyiwa’s heart is in the right place, he has become the perfect conduit for the government to carry on its liberalization and privatization of the healthcare system. This is President Mnangagwa and Mthuli Ncube relinquishing themselves of the duty of providing adequate healthcare services to Zimbabweans.

It has become an issue of privatising the medical system at the cost of the large majority who could not afford private care. It has been a silent genocide that has occurred through the laws and policies of a government detached from the systems of a country they run. A genocide in which the deaths are not on the streets but in the corridors of hospitals, clinics and homes. The government has won this battle, leaving around it a cesspool of death. The ramifications of their victory are a healthcare system that will continually lose its most skilled workers to other countries. Their political legitimacy will weaken with every patient who goes to a hospital and dies because of a lack of drugs and care. Most importantly, we will continue to lose loved ones not because it was their time, but because our pockets are empty and cannot afford to save them. A pyrrhic victory indeed.

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