The lingering strike by resident doctors and the simultaneous intent of many of them to leave the country for greener pastures abroad present a highly unfortunate twin-tragedy.
The latter, evident in the recruitment that was being conducted by the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Health, is the key reason why the former needs to be addressed with the required urgency. The reaction of the government, however, shows a more befuddling non-appreciation of the precarious state of health care delivery in Nigeria – one that some analysts believe deserves the declaration of a state of emergency.
Typical of its jackboot-like approach to issues of public interest, the reaction of the government’s gestapo unit – the State Security Service (SSS) – was to invade the recruitment venue at Sheraton Hotels in Abuja on Thursday August 26, forcefully dispersing the participants and arresting and detaining a journalist with the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), Marcus Fatunde, for some time.
Is the panic reaction to the Saudi recruitment because the government is embarrassed by being mocked by its own joke? Perhaps, if we recall that the Minister of Labour and Productivity, Chris Ngige, paradoxically a medical doctor himself, has repeatedly boasted that Nigeria has enough doctors and that whoever among them wants to go abroad should feel free to do so.
This apparent misrepresentation of the state of the nation’s health care sector is flying in the face of the government; and from the perspective of its enlightened interest, the Saudi government chose the moment of Nigerian doctors’ disaffection with their government to dangle carrots before them. Obviously, the doctors who turned out in large numbers for the recruitment exercise prefer the carrot to the stick. They should not be blamed.
It is saddening that the current month-long strike action by members of the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) is the fourth within the past two years over the same issues of delayed or non-payment of salaries and allowances. NARD is also demanding the payment of COVID-19 treatment allowances in the absence of death-in-service insurance, having lost at least 19 of its members to the pandemic, while it is protesting the shortage of manpower in public hospitals.
At the root of the strike actions is government’s constant failure to honour the agreement voluntarily reached with NARD over its demands, a practice that seems to have acquired the status of ‘regular trade mark’, as the late Afrobeat musician, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti would have put it. As we are all aware, the same attitude towards the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has caused paralysing strikes in our public universities.
No demand could be more justifiable or more reasonable than those being put forward by NARD. Yet instead of pursuing a negotiated settlement to its logical conclusion, the government embarked on the futile journey of issuing a succession of threats, including the application of the “no-work no-pay rule”, which unsurprisingly met with stiff resistance from the doctors. Government then headed to the National Industrial Court seeking an interim injunction restraining the striking doctors, as it continued to dance around the issues at stake.
In this regard, PREMIUM TIMES welcomes the decision of Justice John Targema of the National Industrial Court in Abuja not to grant the order and commends him for the order to the two parties – the federal government and the NARD – “to suspend all forms of hostilities”.
The commonsense interpretation that should have been given to the order by a government genuinely concerned about the welfare of its health workforce and that of the generality of Nigerians who are being subjected to hardship due to the strike, is acceptance that the non-payment of salaries and allowances constitutes an act of hostility to the doctors and therefore this should be addressed by all means possible. One immediate response could have been to invite the doctors for another round of negotiation.
The government chose to do otherwise. It wrongly interpreted the court order to mean that the doctors should return to work, and a spokesperson of the Federal Ministry of Labour and Productivity, Charles Akpan, even issued a false statement claiming that the Industrial Court had granted an order of interlocutory injunction, “compelling all members of the Defendants/Respondents in all the states of the Federation to suspend the said industrial action,” contrary to what is contained in the certified true copy of the order.
It is a huge shame that the state of health care delivery in Nigeria has been allowed to degenerate to the appalling level where doctors who are bracing the odds to fulfill their obligation to patients, despite glaringly inadequate facilities, are not considered worthy of earning their wages when due.
A Federal Government that has indicated its intention to spend as much as N4 billion to monitor the use of WhatsApp by citizens cannot be taken seriously over its claim that it lacks funds to pay doctors in its employment and fix its hospitals.
It is the deplorable working conditions in our hospitals and the poor welfare of medical personnel that is propelling the constant exodus by Nigerian doctors, who together with other health care workers, including nurses, physiotherapists, pharmacists, etc, now represent significant percentages of the health workforce in Europe, North America and the Middle East.
The Buhari government must come to terms with this reality and stop its counterproductive, if not futile, effort at bullying the striking doctors and hounding those intent on relocating abroad to earn better pay and work in more conducive environments.
President Muhammadu Buhari should be reminded that the Constitution he swore to uphold states in section 14 (2)(b) that “the security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government”, while sections 17 (3) (c) and (d) respectively obligate the government to direct its policy towards ensuring that: “the health, safety and welfare of all persons in employment are safeguarded and not endangered or abused” and “there are adequate medical and health facilities for all persons”.
PREMIUM TIMES calls on the Federal and State Governments to show respect to our doctors and other medical personnel and ensure that their welfare is adequately provided for, so that they can continue to provide medical services needed by Nigerians. Nigeria invests a lot of resources in the training of doctors and it makes no sense to superintend over the export of such investments to other countries that are eager to leverage our investments.
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