Hi friends,

This past week, a video in which the Health Minister Sylvia Masebo got a confession from a medical doctor that his colleagues have about two or three other jobs went viral on social media. This angered the medical practitioners who issued various statements castigating the minister for “demeaning” their colleague. What is also noteworthy is that they did not deny having more than one job.

Now this is a reality which I myself painfully lived through barely a couple of months ago before my mother succumbed to endometrial cancer. I don’t wish to bore you with a repetition of that story again, for those of you who are new to this platform, you may check out my stories “Losing Mother” on our website, diggers.news. Additionally, countless people have shared their own sad experiences with me since I began talking about the poor state of our health care system.

For the sake of context, however, people are literally dying in queues, either a queue to see a specialist doctor or for getting a required scan, or even a queue for getting treatment in some instances. This is the shortest summary of the state of the messed up public health care system.

Now, when I wrote the story “Losing Mother”, I deliberately concealed the identities of the doctors who were on her case because I realised that the problem is much bigger than them – it is not an issue of some doctors being so evil that they are not seeing patients, no. They too are human, with their very own valid frustrations about the conditions under which they operate.

In fact, let me use the actual words of the medical doctors themselves because they have summed up their frustrations so well, I can’t amend anything:

“…It is unfortunate that the honourable minister chose that forum to continue her crusade to publicly undermine the sanctity and dignity of our profession, without first engaging in a critical examination of the complex human resource constraints surrounding some of the most highly skilled employees in her ministry.
Medical doctors, both specialised and general medical officers provide a crucial service in Zambia, working through and against insurmountable odds, in often frustrating conditions and yet, there is a constant onslaught of public undermining of medical services, without supporting data to prove the source of these claims.
With high rates of burnout among medical professionals, and little or no recognition of our services, it should be incredibly concerning to the honourable minister that her employees have reached the extent of requiring two or more streams of income in order to provide for themselves and their families.
Doctors do not live in isolation, they have responsibilities towards their own nuclear families, their parents, their extended families and others. These are responsibilities that doctors, if the minister’s statements prove true, are unable to meet with the current compensation received. If majority of doctors are, thus, engaging in this practice, it is the responsibility of their employer to closely and critically examine the conditions that have forced their hand…
The continued public demonisation of medical officers is not only discouraging to those who have given so much for this great nation, but is an affront to the daily struggles doctors face while being constantly overlooked by those in power, only to be publicly belittled and denigrated by our leaders in whom great hope was placed that the health of this nation will no longer be driven by sentiments and reports but by facts and data to the betterment of the people of Zambia. We remain ever at the ready to meet with the honourable minister to aid the dignified resolution of what can only be seen as a human resource crisis,” wrote Dr Sompwe Mwansa, who is secretary general of the Society of Anaesthetists of Zambia.

In a separate statement, Dr Dennis Sakala, who is president of The Zambia Orthopaedic and Trauma Association said “We wish to state to the minister that there is nothing wrong with Doctors having more than one job as long as deliverables are met at the their places of work. The practice of having more than one job is not unique to Zambia, it is the norm in many other countries.
Doctors, like other workers have needs that cannot be met by a government salary alone. Those needs include investing in their own career progression for them to continue improving their craft. We do not see the need for health workers to justify having more than one job especially in economic times such as these.
Government health workers are merely employees they are not government property. What they do after hours is their business.
We do not see the need for anyone regardless of their social, political, religious or economic status, to disparage our medical doctors.
The doctors that are being disparaged are the same ones that put their lives on the line at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic during which time we lost some of the finest doctors (and nurses) in the line of duty. The least the minister or anyone else would do is to be grateful.”

I agree that their grievances deserve urgent attention. This is why I was encouraged when I heard the Honourable Masebo say government will this year promote some doctors and long serving health workers in order to motivate them. That is a good starting point, and it is long overdue. It appears this was neglected for so long such that doctors had to get creative with balancing their budgets.

And another thing Honourable Masebo needs to urgently work on is replacing some of the vital equipment in public hospitals. Government’s decision to hire over 12,000 health workers was very commendable, but the impact is not being felt because they were hired without being equipped with the necessary tools. Imagine hiring a plumber without equipment; it is possible that he can find ways and means of unclogging that toilet, but rest assured, it’ll be a messy situation.

Recently, Diamond TV’s Dingindaba Johna Buyoya sat down with 60-year-old Getrude Jabu Stephenson who painted a very gloomy picture of being a cancer patient in Zambia. In her own words, she says “we are just passing time waiting to die”.

More than 600 cancer patients in Zambia are still waiting to receive crucial cancer treatment due to the lack of linear accelerators at the Cancer Diseases Hospital in Lusaka. The lack of access to these life-saving machines has left many cancer patients feeling helpless, hopeless and others dead. Additionally, the radiotherapy machine has been faulty since 2021.

Anyone who has ever battled cancer or experienced cancer by watching a loved one go through it or succumb to the ailment knows how aggressive and serious the condition is. It is the stuff of nightmares that keep you awake at night. It drills holes in your head which can never be patched up. This is why we want to hear what plans government has in terms of replacing this equipment so that it can also increase the doctors’ output. I can imagine they’re also depressed; going to work every single day and having to communicate to desperate families how they cannot do anything because some machine isn’t working. Most times, we complain that a nurse or two were mean or that a doctor was rude, but today, I am asking myself, are they okay? Given the circumstances under which they have to work, how is their mental health? What coping mechanisms have they adopted? Are they all sober? Does government invest in regular therapy for them? From my observation, it is a depressed system with depressed personnel.

The truth is, some doctors are doing side hustles even during their official working hours in government facilities. But speaking in my own capacity as a daughter who watched her mother in so much pain without any senior medical practitioner to attend to her for several days as they would only come every Monday and Thursday, it is very hard for me to completely castigate them without considering the environment in which they are operating. As a daughter who relied on Google to try and interpret some of the scans and test results because there was no one to interpret them once they were ready, I cannot call the doctors names. If my family had the money to take Mother to a private facility for a hysterectomy when she was just diagnosed, we’d probably have met the same doctors, but we would have had a totally different experience and maybe our mother would still be alive today.

Unfortunately for the UPND, this is what they inherited in the health sector. The question is do they have a clear roadmap on how they will change the status quo? If so, may they please publish it so that it gives us some hope?

In the meantime, I am a firm believer that we must all do what we can individually to live healthier lives. If you have one too many more kilos than you need on your body like me, let us try all we can to lose that extra fat because most times, losing weight requires a lifestyle change and most times, it occurs when you adopt a healthy lifestyle. At that point, what you are doing is healing certain conditions you never knew you had, and weight loss is just a happy by-product.