Zimbabwe has just endured one of the longest doctors’ strikes in history. Protests over pay and poor conditions lasted more than four months, crippling the country’s healthcare system. Then a billionaire offered to pay doctors’ salaries for six months. But what happens after the money runs out?
Zimbabwe’s economy is crumbling. Inflation in the country has spiked to about 500%. There are shortages of gas, food, and even drinking water.
Healthcare is ailing too. Hospitals lack basic supplies. Relatives of patients must buy necessities like bandages and gloves themselves. Sometimes, they must provide their own water. Electricity shuts off up to 18 hours per day. That’s led some hospitals to ask relatives to take deceased bodies to private funeral parlors or conduct quick burials to keep loved ones from decomposing in mortuaries.
Often the best a doctor can do is diagnose and write a prescription. Patients usually ask relatives for help to buy drugs at private pharmacies. But the majority of people in Zimbabwe can barely put food on the table, let alone afford expensive medical care or medication.
“It breaks a doctor’s heart to ask a patient who clearly cannot afford bread to buy their own blades, bandages, and even dressing solutions, painkillers, and antibiotics,” says Dr. Masimba Ndoro, vice president of the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association.
Patients weren’t the only ones struggling. Doctors trying to get by on roughly $100 monthly pay say it’s not enough. Combined, issues like these forced doctors in the country to strike last September. They abandoned work to press for better salaries and working conditions.
The Zimbabwean government could not afford to increase doctor pay. But late last year, Zimbabwean billionaire Strive Masiyiwa offered to pay doctors through his charity, Higherlife Foundation. He set up a fund equal to about $6.25 million. He says the fund could pay up to 2,000 doctors roughly $300 per month—for six months.
The Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors’ Association accepted Masiyiwa’s offer. Hundreds of doctors have signed up for the money. They say they will return to work.
Health Minister Obadiah Moyo says the situation is improving. “[The doctors] are back in full force. We want to be able to work together as one team; everyone has a role to play,” he says.
Despite the influx of cash, many doctors and nurses don’t seem to share the minister’s hopefulness. Ndoro warns that “nothing much has changed” at public hospitals. And Masiyiwa’s offer will run out. Then what?
“Many doctors have left the country,” Ndoro says. Others “may not yet have left, but they are definitely going to leave.”