Ground-breaking surgery spurs healthcare reform

HARARE - The successful separation of conjoined twins on July 1 by a team of Zimbabwean doctors has jolted government to muse over a fair remuneration for local doctors and medical staff.

Hundreds of doctors and nurses have fled Zimbabwe over the past eight years to seek better paying jobs and living conditions in neighbouring countries and as far afield as Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

The brain-drain has helped exacerbate the rot in a public health sector once among the best in the developing world; but now barely functional  due to under-funding, drug shortages and an overload of HIV/Aids cases.

The separation of the two-month-old twin brothers Kupakwashe and Tapiwanashe Chitiyo, born on April 21 at Murewa District Hospital, after a complex surgery, could ramp up the remuneration of health professionals.

President Robert Mugabe personally pledged to improve the conditions of service for medical professionals after visiting the twins on Thursday. He described the working conditions as “embarrassing” to the nation.

Mugabe, who showered praises on Dr Bothwell Mbuwayesango, a paediatric surgeon who led a team of 50 health personnel in the operation, admitted that civil servants in the health sector were poorly remunerated.

He said  the $89 million loan facility from China’s Exim Bank earmarked for equipment upgrade should also benefit the workforce.

“We must honour the hands and brains that perform in our society by ensuring that we pay them well,” Mugabe said to a rapturous applause from Harare Central Hospital staff.

He said the well-educated professionals were struggling to provide for their families and the situation needed immediate redress.

“Kandiro kanoenda kunobva kamwe. Zvino vanhu vanoshanda mushando wakadai vagenge vachitambura, aaah zvinonyadza. (One good turn deserves another. It’s embarrassing for staff performing such ground- breaking surgery to be suffering)

“Handiti zvinonyadza kuti vana havawane zvekudya zvakanaka, havawane zvekupfeka zvakanaka, mari yekuvadzidzisa voishaya, aiwa hazvisungirwe kudaro. Zvakadaro mazuva ano nezvikonzero zvatiri kuda kubvisa izvozvo. (It is embarrassing that their children do not get good food and tuition fees, no it should not be like that. We have to fight this).”

A doctor just completing medical school earns about $283 a month — roughly the same as a shopfloor worker, an income which is half the poverty datum line of $511.

Mugabe said the salaries in the health sector  must be reviewed. “The nation shouldn’t say, ‘you are bound to do it because we have trained you’, but it should say ‘Thank you’,” he said.

It takes seven years to study medicine, five years in class and two years in apprenticeship or housemanship, making it one of the longest but poorly remunerated professions in Zimbabwe.

Providing affordable, accessible healthcare is one of the key platforms of Mugabe’s government. But hospitals are often underfunded and overcrowded, and access to care remains a pervasive problem for the poor.

Hospitals and first-aid teams regularly detain patients because they are unable to pay or their identity is in question.

Health care in Zimbabwe is not free but is supposed to be very cheap. However, many doctors and nurses are poorly paid and supplement their salaries with bribes, meaning treatment is often out of reach of the poor, especially in rural areas.

Concerns over corruption fuels suspicion that staff are keener to make money by working in their surgeries than tending the sick in public institutions.


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