By Shapi Shacinda
LUSAKA, June 21 (Reuters) - Several Zambian hospitals have shut their admission wards and sent hundreds of patients home because of a crippling strike by nurses over pay, the country’s biggest labour federation said on Sunday.
The nurses’ strike entered its 17th day on Sunday, with the Zambia Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) saying the situation in many hospitals had become a "national disaster".
"Some wards are completely deserted while in other wards there is a skeleton staff. We are trying to impress upon the workers to return to work as we continue to dialogue with the government," ZCTU General Secretary Roy Mwaba told Reuters.
Operations at the University Teaching Hospital (UTH), one of the largest referral hospitals in southern Africa, and several hospitals across Zambia have been paralysed since nurses and some paramedics rejected a 15 percent pay rise from the government last week.
Mwaba said patients were dying and bodies lay uncollected in the few wards that were still treating patients in a critical condition.
"I have been to 15 wards and I have seen 10 (uncollected) dead bodies. This is a crisis and I urge President Banda to visit the UTH and get first hand information about what is going on and to act quickly to save the situation," he told reporters.
Nurses have been demanding a 25 percent wage hike, but the government has only offered them an increase of 15 percent.
The average monthly salary of junior nurses is $300, while senior nurses are paid around $400 per month.
Health Minister Kapembwa Simbao has said the strike was illegal and called on the striking nurses to return to work. But the workers’ representatives have urged President Rupiah Banda to intervene and seek dialogue with the nurses.