Nurses in Zimbabwe were met with police batons and arrests as they demanded better working conditions, improved salaries and provision of PPE.
Two patients cut lonely figures at the usually busy waiting area of Zimbabwe’s largest referral hospital, Parirenyatwa on Thursday morning, with no nurse in sight to attend to them. Two days previously the police had attempted to quash a nurses’ strike to demand better salaries and working conditions.
“We have been sitting here for some time but have not been attended to. The clerks told us the nurses will come and assist us but up to now no one has come,” said one of the two patients, who identified himself as Erasmus Magodi.
The situation at the hospital was tense when Elitsha visited the hospital, with no nurses visible both inside and outside the healthcare facility. Only a few plain clothed individuals could be seen walking up and down the almost deserted corridors.
Government nurses began industrial action Monday, with those at Parirenyatwa and Sally Mugabe Hospital staging demonstrations at their work stations to demand U.S. dollar-based salaries, covid-19 risk allowances and personal protective equipment among others.
The Zimbabwe Republic Police moved in to arrest 13 nurses at the Sally Mugabe Hospital and charged them with violating covid-19 lockdown regulations.
Two of the nurses paid admission of guilt fines and were released while the 11 others spent the night in police cells and appeared at the Mbare Magistrate’s Court on Tuesday where magistrate Shelly Zvenyika granted them Z$500 bail each.
The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions secretary general, Japhet Moyo, expressed outrage at the arrest of the striking nurses saying the nurses had not broken any law and their acts did not go beyond covid-19 regulations.
“It is disgusting that labour issues are now criminalised. The employers are now using the covid-19 pandemic to infringe on people’s rights [and] we reject the state’s expedience in stripping citizens of their constitutional rights,” said Moyo.
He said government was misleading itself in thinking that the workers would abandon their constitutional rights to express themselves in fear of arrest and detention.
“Using filthy police cells to intimidate the people will not work because workers have become used to this environment,” he said.
Zimbabwe Urban and Rural Nurses Workers Union (ZURNWU), which represents nurses under local authority institutions, also expressed dismay at the arrest of the government nurses, saying it was unwarranted.
“If they know that nurses are essential service workers, they must remunerate them with satisfactory salaries because they don’t exist in a vacuum,” ZURNWU president, Simbarashe Tafirenyika, said.
ZURNWU has also tendered a notice of intention to strike, he added, as its members also face the same challenges of unfair labour practices, salaries paid in a moribund currency and the non-provision of personal protective clothing, which puts them at greater risk of contracting the deadly coronavirus.
“We have tendered a notice of collective job action to the Ministry of Health and Child Care and to the City of Harare but got an unfavourable response so we will be going for conciliation on Thursday,” Tafirenyika said.
He claimed authorities at the City of Harare were abusing covid-19 donations meant for the municipality’s frontline workers.
“There is rampant mismanagement of donor funds and workers have to make do without PPE such as gowns, masks, sanitisers and nurses are not going through the mandatory rapid testing. We want to know why these tests are not being done,” he said.
There is a real danger that health workers will contract the coronavirus and pass it on to their families and communities, Tafirenyika said, adding that health workers were now psychologically affected and not performing their duties well due to anxiety and fear.
The government nurses associations remained mum on their next course of action Thursday, with the secretary general of the Zimbabwe Nurses Association (ZINA), Shepherd Humure, referring all questions to the Nurses Council of Zimbabwe.
“This is an issue for the Nurses Council. You may contact the registrar of the Nurses Council, who registers and keeps the membership register of all nurses,” he said.
Nurses Council registrar, Mercy Chaka, was not answering her phone when contacted for comment and did not respond to questions sent to her.
Permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health and Child Care, Gibson Mhlanga, was also not responsive when contacted for comment.
Zimbabwe’s positive coronavirus cases have been rising significantly over the past few weeks, surpassing the 700 mark, with nine deaths reported so far.