They stood their ground against government threats, but it took coercion from one of their own to end the junior doctors’ 40-day strike.
At one time they were fired by Vice-President Constantino Guveya Chiwenga after refusing to return to work following a court ruling declaring their strike illegal. Several meetings were later held between the doctors and the Health Services Board (HSB), which employed the carrot-and stick tactic to try to persuade and also threaten them to go back to work — all in vain.
As the crisis in the health sector deepened, and other civil servants also threatened to down tools, President Emmerson Mnangagwa had to cut short his leave to deal with the crisis, but nothing came out. His wife, First Lady Auxillia Mnangagwa, also joined the fray and she too, failed.
With no solution in sight and government appearing to have given up on the doctors, a surprise announcement was made on Thursday that the junior doctors had ended their strike. The announcement came from the doctors themselves saying despite having received no joy over their major demands, they had decided to go back to work. They did not say what had driven them to make this decision.
So, The Standard went to find out what really happened to cajole the doctors to go back to work after more than a month of resistance. Our investigations found out there was more than meets the eye to the doctors’ surrender and that discontent is still simmering among them with many seriously considering leaving the country. The relaxation of terms for non-European doctors has made England an attractive destination.
After trying every trick, including the age-old divide-and-rule tactic to force the doctors back to work, our investigations revealed government underhand coercion strategies involving consultant doctors, who were allegedly blackmailed to threaten junior doctors.
The consultant doctors allegedly put the junior doctors into a corner, threatening them with all sorts of consequences, including career jeopardy, if they continued with the strike. This left the doctors in a Catch-22 situation. The doctors reportedly then made the hard decision to dump the strike against their will, otherwise they risked failing to complete their housemanship.
According to sources, the threat from the senior doctors came during one of their update meetings at Parirenyatwa Hospital. Three consultant doctors arrived to address them.
According to the video footage of the meeting in The Standard’s possession, one of the consultant doctors threatened to abandon the junior doctors if they did not heed their order to return to work.
One of the three consultants is recorded saying that the junior doctors’ demand for drugs and consumables was the responsibility of the senior medical practitioners and not the strikers. The consultant doctor is also heard saying to the junior doctors that government had heard their concerns and would address them while they reported for duty.
“If they (government) give you a pay rise today, the whole country will demand that and the government will not be able to cope,” the doctor is recorded in the videos saying.
“The cost of living (allowance) is coming in March. It is coming, they have promised. Consider what is there on the table and take. If you continue, if the consultant says fire them, you will come back to zero, remember, you are not yet registered with the Medical Council. If you get fired, no matter what you want to do, you will never go anywhere. You have wasted your six years of training. I am pleading with you, suffer for a while.”
It turned out that the fear of failing to finish their courses was the major push factor that forced the doctors to grudgingly return to work. Without the consultants’ greenlight, junior doctors on housemanship cannot successfully complete their medical training.
After their five-year study at the university, student doctors have to go on internship at a public hospital under the supervision of the consultant doctors who will sign them out. After being signed out, they are deployed to a provincial or district hospital for a year to qualify for an open practicing certificate.
Consultant doctors supervise them on their rotations from one field of specialisation to another within their two-year post-graduate training. One cannot proceed to another rotation before being signed out by a constant doctor.
“It was a difficult decision to make. We had concerns, but we cannot afford to cross paths with our consultant doctors. As an intern, you cannot go against the consultant doctors because you will not finish the internship,” one junior doctor said.
“This explains why most junior doctors who join the Zimbabwe Hospitals Doctors’ Association (ZHDA) take time to finish their internship — it is this failure to obtain a pass from the consultant doctors.”
After consultations with their colleagues elsewhere, the junior doctors then decided to go back to work and the ZHDA announced on Thursday the decision to “begrudgingly” end the strike.
“Sadly, with no salary review, and frozen December salaries, in this rough and ravaging economic environment, it remains a dilemma how our members will report to work daily,” said the striking doctors in the statement.
“Indeed, poor remuneration and the current fuel shortages remain a threat that may spontaneously hinder our members from reporting to work and discharging quality health services to patients. That being said, our members have begrudgingly resumed work with effect from today, as dialogue continues.”
According to the source, government had been using all manner of tactics and threats to cause division within the striking doctors in order to get them back to work.
It is also alleged one of the three consultant doctors who threatened the junior doctors on Wednesday was arm-twisted by state operatives, who threatened to expose skeletons in his cupboard.
Divisions started showing up in the doctors’ camp with one camp accusing another of being sponsored by government.
Last weekend, doctors had to open a new WhatsApp group alleging the account they were using before had been infiltrated by Central Intelligence Organisation operatives who were posting threats and other messages to demoralise the striking doctors.
There were also allegations that government was dishing out money to some doctors so that they could return to work and cause divisions among them.
One doctor admitted in a leaked family group WhatsApp chat that she was given US$500 to return to work. The doctor claimed she accepted the money because her situation was getting desperate and no family member offered to assist.
“I needed the money. So when they approached me, I had to accept. I tell you because you are family. Please don’t sell me out. You should have supported me financially, but you neglected me,” the female doctor wrote.
Information deputy minister Energy Mutodi, however, denied that government was secretly paying doctors to entice them to return to work.
“That is mere speculation, no one has been bribed to go back to work. What we know is that some doctors are agitating for more and more benefits at the expense of saving lives,” Mutodi said.
“Being a doctor is not a profession for gold diggers and money mongers. Government is committed to improving the livelihoods of its workers.”
The family members, including one who is a doctor in the United Kingdom, however accused the doctor of betraying her profession.
“This is embarrassing Dr. I have respect for you. You shouldn’t have accepted the bribe to go back to work. It is like selling your fishing boat and net for a plate of fish or your birth right for a plate of soup,” one member commented.
Asked how many others she knew had been paid and how much they had been paid, she said: “No one will confess, but I suspect all who are coming back were given money. US$500 is more than the salary I was looking for anyway.”
— The Standard