On Saturday September 14, Dr Peter Magombeyi, a Zimbabwean doctor and president of the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association, was abducted, allegedly by members of the state security forces. In a matter of hours, social media was abuzz with the news of the abduction and Zimbabweans across Harare — and the world — began to organise protests against the government to bring Magombeyi back.
The state, under Robert Mugabe’s regime, was known to abduct dissenting voices, with activist and journalist Itai Dzamara among the most recent of Mugabe’s victims.
On September 19, Magombeyi was found alive, yet the legacy of abductions lives on in the current regime. But this time around, doctors have refused to let history repeat itself.
Striking as a political engagement strategy by Zimbabwean doctors is now becoming the norm, often putting increasing pressure on the iron fist that is the government.
In January 2019, doctors went on strike because of working conditions and lack of a living wage and, although they came out without a deal, the government was forced to listen to them as Zimbabweans went without care in dilapidated state hospitals.
The empty threats by Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga to replace doctors with nurses fell on deaf ears as both doctors and nurses pushed on for a month-long strike. The most recent September strike has left the state with no choice but to deploy military doctors to work in state hospitals, a short-term strategy that will soon run out of steam.
There is no civil servant sector in Zimbabwe that has not gone on strike in the last three years, yet the strike by the doctors seems to have struck a nerve. It is no secret that when doctors go on strike, they leave the sick population vulnerable. Yet, in this case, it is clear that this is the only language the Emmerson Mnangagwa government understands.
The moral argument of “letting people die” becomes a foregone conclusion given that, in fact, doctors and their patients are all sick. Zimbabweans are dying of hunger, cholera outbreaks that should be a thing of the past, and deep depression from a continuously decrepit economy.
What would it look like to have doctors lead the charge against African regimes such as that of Zimbabwe? The current state of affairs does not afford the citizens a choice about who becomes their leader or allow them to criticise the regime without fear of persecution, disappearance or death.
Doctors, on the other hand, seem to hold the heartbeat of the Zimbabwean government in their hands and, perhaps once in a while, they squeeze. It is easy to imagine the thousands of them, arm in arm with civilians, pushing ruthless governments into a tight corner until they treat all civilians with dignity and respect.
The Hippocratic Oath binds doctors all over the world. They solemnly intone it as they enter the profession of healing — the promise to do all that they can to help a patient survive. The country of Zimbabwe is sick, it needs healing, and its doctors are here — they are on call.
Paida Chikate is an independent policy analyst and consultant and most recently worked with the UN and Open Society Foundations out of the New York office as a public policy fellow