By Phyllis Mbanje
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised to fast-track his country’s National Health Services (NHS) visas to make it easier for overseas doctors and nurses to work in the UK — a move likely to throw Zimbabwe’s public health sector into unprecedented crisis in the wake of government’s protracted dispute with its doctors and nurses over remuneration and working conditions.
This comes as President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration has already fired over 200 doctors for failing to report for duty over issues of incapacitation.
Although Boris’ proposal is on condition that the Tories win the general election to be held on December 12, the mere suggestion means Zimbabwe’s former coloniser is in desperate need of the health workers and could trigger a mass exodus of local doctors and nurses in the new year.
Under the scheme, the cost of a visa for healthcare professionals would be halved from £928 (US$1 190) to £464 (US$590), while applicants would be guaranteed a decision within two weeks.
The UK carrot comes amid a public outcry following the dismissal of over 200 doctors, with many Zimbabweans questioning the rationale behind government’s decision to lay off key medical staff at a time the majority of them had already left for greener pastures outside the country.
On Friday, the Health Services Board (HSB) confirmed that it had fired 211 doctors for refusing to end their two-month long strike over wages and better working conditions.
Describing government’s action as unjustified, Norton legislator Temba Mliswa (independent) took to Twitter, saying: “I do not see the rationale of firing doctors. They had genuine complaints and government, as the father, was supposed to deal with the matter in a less aggressive manner. At the end, it’s the health system that suffers, otherwise most of the professionals will get jobs elsewhere.”
Opposition MDC secretary-general Chalton Hwende said his party was concerned about deaths in hospitals now being directly linked to the “irrational and cruel decision” by Mnangagwa’s administration.
“This government does not care about the health and lives of poor people because the President and his ministers, together with their families, do not use our local hospitals. They fly out of the country to seek medical attention,” he told NewsDay yesterday.
Hwende said his party would be writing to international donors this week to appeal for medication, equipment and doctors’ salary subsidies to resuscitate hospitals and save lives.
A UK-based Zimbabwean medical doctor Brighton Chireka said the country should draw lessons from others like Rwanda, where President Paul Kagame recently met doctors in his country to appreciate their concerns.
Last week, Kagame met over 800 doctors in his country to discuss the challenges facing the health delivery system in Rwanda in a bid to come up with solutions.
Lawyer and politician Fadzayi Mahere echoed Chireka’s sentiments, saying the government should emulate Kagame’s example.
“While government treats doctors as slaves, calling them satanic and firing them, other African leaders are treating their medical doctors as valuable and strengthening their public health system,” Mahere tweeted.
American economist Steve Hanke accused Mnangagwa of attempting to curb protests over galloping inflation by firing doctors who participated in the protests.
“This is straight from (the late former President Robert ) Mugabe playbook. Censorship is the name of the game,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association (ZHDA) has said it was still hopeful that the government will reverse its decision to fire its members and open new lines of negotiation.
Said ZHDA treasurer-general Tapiwa Mungofa: “We are still hopeful that they will come to their senses and reverse this regressive decision and commence sincere negotiations.
“We are expecting even more doctors to be fired because almost all doctors are incapacitated. We still do not think this move is well-thought since the HSB has not indicated how they are going to resolve the crisis without doctors.”
The fired doctors have been given 30 days’ notice to vacate hospital apartments.
“Doctors are now finding other means of survival, with most planning on leaving the country, which is a sorry situation considering the impact it has on the suffering masses of our nation,” Mungofa said.
UK’s Home secretary Priti Patel said an Australian-style points-based system would allow Britain to control the numbers coming into the country while remaining open to essential professions such as nursing.
“That means the best of both worlds — attracting talent from around the world so our NHS continues to provide brilliant service while ensuring that it isn’t put under strain by opening Britain’s borders to the entire world,” she said. NewsDay…. additional reporting by Al Jazeera