By MacDonald Dzirutwe
HARARE, Dec 30 (Reuters) - Zimbabwe’s state-employed junior doctors and nurses are on strike for higher pay, putting further strain on the country’s crumbling public healthcare facilities.
Doctors and nurses have staged a series of strikes in recent years as their salaries have been steadily eroded by the world’s highest inflation rate — currently officially running at about 8,000 percent in Zimbabwe.
Thousands more continue to abandon the country in search of better-paid jobs in South Africa, Britain and Australia, hitting a sector burdened by shortages of drugs and the effects of HIV and AIDS.
Health Minister David Parirenyatwa said on Sunday the government was negotiating with the doctors and nurses to return to work.
"We are talking to them as we have always done through the Health Services Board and we hope to reach some agreement soon," Parirenyatwa said.
Doctors earn 60 million Zimbabwe dollars a month ($2,000 at the official rate but $30 on the widely used parallel market) and nurses half that amount.
Student and army doctors and nurses were staffing government hospitals while the strike continued.
President Robert Mugabe’s government has barred health workers, and those from other essential services, from striking but doctors and nurses have often defied the directive.
Representatives of doctors and nurses were not immediately available for comment but a Reuters correspondent saw some patients being turned away early on Sunday at Parirenyatwa Hospital, the country’s largest referral medical centre.
Some student nurses said the strike had started on Christmas Day and that they were only tending to serious cases.
"I have been told to try again in the New Year. There are no doctors," said Martha Magaya, who had brought her 7-year-old son with a cold. "Should my son die because people are arguing over pay?" she said.
Staff at private clinics — which are more expensive — have not joined the strike, but most Zimbabweans receive medical care through cheaper state hospitals and clinics.
Economic analysts have warned that Zimbabwe is likely to see more strikes in 2008 by dissatisfied workers grappling with an economic recession that is marked by shortages of foreign currency, food and fuel, and rising unemployment. (Editing by Giles Elgood)