Death, tears and pain over KNH crisis

At the critical care unit of Kenyatta National Hospital, a woman leans on a wall, sobbing. It has been more than 12 hours since the doctors last checked on her baby who has lung complications.

“My baby is dying…I do not know what to do,” she says.

A few metres away, at the chemotherapy section, patients are huddled on benches. Some arrived way before dawn. Nobody has attended to them. Many others are lying on the grass.

A cough, stifled cry, emotional wail, a mother desperately trying to hush her baby, were the scenes that defined the referral hospital yesterday as the workers’ strike entered its second day.

Outside the accidents and emergency unit, the workers danced. With whistles, music systems and thumping of feet, they sang about a raging war; one they said they will not relent from until their needs are met.

“We feel bad that patients are dying, but we have been patient for too long. They are using our empathy to deny us our rights. We are now fighting for it,” said one of the doctors.

The workers faulted the Salaries and Remuneration Commission (SRC) for failing to fulfil a promise of better pay.

“We will not relent until SRC gives approval for management to releases the money that was to be paid to us,” said Kennedy Meme of Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotels and Hospital Workers. He said hospital staff are overworked and underpaid.

The hospital’s union complained that SRC has failed to implement the 7a clause made in 2012, which made KNH to a parastatal and elevated the pay grade of all the employees.

Knun Secretary-General Seth Panyako said their talks collapsed when SRC pushed the increment of their pay to 2025. “We have refused! This is an injustice from 2012,” he said.

Their chants demanding for more money blended with the cries of patients and caregivers some of whom bundled the sick in private vehicles to take them to other hospitals.

“My sister developed post birth complications and today she had low blood count. She begged us to get her out of KNH,” said Eucabeth Ocholla as they waited for a taxi to come.

The surgical wards remained locked and radiotherapy halls abandoned. Many patients were being wheeled out of the hospital. At the newborn unit for premature babies, mothers depended on each other for help with breastfeeding. Not a nurse was in sight.

When an ambulance carrying patients approached, their whistles and protest songs from the workers got louder. “Staff, clear from that vehicle, the strike is on,” their leader yelled on speaker.

A woman whose husband had been referred to the hospital due to a heart condition hurled herself to the ground and wailed. “I was at Mbagathi hospital and I have been referred here. They say his case is too serious for them to handle. Where do they want me to take the patient,” she pleaded.

Akima Abdulahi cried over her sister Sarai Ali who had succumbed to kidney disease. When they took her to KNH on Sunday evening, she was strong, but her condition deteriorated. Yesterday, slightly after 3am, she died.

“They were not treating. There was nobody to attend to her. It was such a painful death,” said Abdulahi.

On social media, people talked of how they were getting calls to go for their patients admitted at KNH. A clinical officer at Mbagathi said because of the strike, they are getting overwhelmed by patients, most of who are in critical condition.

The board of management at KNH said it is regrettable the workers have chosen to go on strike at a time of a global pandemic. They said they are in talks with SRC, Ministry of Health and the union officials to find a solution.

“We wish to assure the public that even as we strive to maintain normal operations in critical functions, we remain committed to resolving the ongoing industrial situation,” said KNH board chairman George Ooko.

He said they are beginning job evaluations today to find a lasting solution.

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