Find lasting remedy for health workers’ strikes

KNH nurses and doctors strike over their pay on 29/09/2020. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

Strikes followed by protests and demonstrations are not fun. In particular, the government should take seriously strikes by medical doctors and nurses. The horrendous suffering that patients go through whenever there is a strike should remind us that saving life ought to be a priority for any right thinking human being both in government and in the medical space.

I have no grudges against the striking medics. But I have a beef with the duty bearer.

Medical doctors and nurses in Kenya have had intermittent strikes for more than 20 years. In the past few months, doctors and nurses have downed their tools to protest against poor support by the government. The strikes often end up in the streets with battles between the medical staff and the police. Patients die, illnesses accelerate and consequently, instead of saving lives or alleviating suffering, more people are hurt.

I have been a needy guest of some public hospitals in the past two months. The situation in some of these hospitals where the poor seek medical support are desolating. The don’t-care attitude of some staff, the lack of proper procedures and standards, the sense of helplessness on the part of some staff and the way management tends to normalise all these failures raises the question of our understanding of life.

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We know that medics must at all times aim to save lives. Their ethical obligations place the patient at the heart of their profession. However, years of running battles to push for better remuneration has only hardened the government stance. Like teachers (and lecturers) who have also been on the streets for years, medical doctors and nurses have not been listened to.

The people charged with the responsibility of running the government should know that they are like parents. They cannot treat one child with pomp and another with scorn and expect peace. The legislature is treated with love, care and protection. Salaries and the accompanying perks  for the lawmakers are handsome. But, the cry of the doctors, nurses and support staff, some of whom stand on the frontline as is the case with the fight against the coronavirus, is hardly listened to.

The demands of the striking doctors and nurses and the offers or counter-offers by the government are often kept away from the public. But, we surely cannot expose patients to years and years of unresolved conflict between the two parties. It is not human. The result of the standoff has been a decline in quality of services in public hospitals.

What is striking about some of our poorly managed public hospitals is the normalisation of patient suffering. The impression one gets upon arrival, especially for inpatients is that “you need help to get help”. It is as if one must know who is who in order to be served. That patients can stay at outpatient units for hours without proper attention and support, that patients can lie on beds with minimal care and that patients have to buy prescribed medicine is not a sign of love, care and protection. It is a subtle communication that their lives don’t matter.

The government should introspect and wake up to the reality of the many Kenyans who are suffering in the hands of disenfranchised doctors, nurses and support staff. Cosmetic or half-hearted offers will only accelerate the problem. One of the the government’s Big Four Agenda is (was) Health. It is so critical yet there is no evidence on the ground that much has been done to improve medical services. The Covid-19 financial scandals do not help the image of the government in this respect.

With a weak public health system, the poor have no alternative. Good private hospitals are very expensive and, therefore, out of reach for them. The care and attention given to the patients is by all indicators superior. Yet one would expect government hospitals, which are (or should be) subsidised by government, to be far superior.

Whenever a person visits a hospital it means a life is in danger. The least one should expect is more agony and a feeling of worthlessness. When relatives of a patient turn to God for hope in cases that clearly can be addressed, then we know there is a deeper structural and systemic problem in our healthcare system. Let us not forget that patients are the taxpayers.

Meaningful reforms are necessary to make healthcare accessible and affordable.


Dr Mokua teaches media and communication studies

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