Doctors’ despair drives Kenya’s longest medical strike
The first patient Cynthia Waliaula lost was a baby who stopped breathing while she carried him in her arms through the hospital, desperately trying to find an oxygen tank.
Barely out of medical school, the bright-eyed young doctor quickly learned that many of the techniques she had spent five years studying meant nothing in a world where there was neither equipment nor drugs.
Waliaula, 25, is one of thousands of Kenyan public sector doctors currently engaged in the country’s longest-ever medical strike which has dragged on for the last month and a half, demanding a tripling of salaries and better working conditions.
“When you graduate you are really excited. You are just ready to go out into the world but you get there and you realise a lot of things you were taught aren’t there,” she told AFP.
She said the three-month-old baby who died in her arms had pneumonia and was malnourished, but could easily have been saved with the right treatment. However, at the time, her hospital in the central Kenyan town of Isiolo had only two oxygen tanks.
“I think every Kenyan doctor has had to decide who gets oxygen. You are forced to play god.”
– Cellphone torch surgery –
Waliaula’s harrowing tales of working without even basic drugs, such as penicillin, are not isolated cases in the public sector. Meanwhile, Kenya’s private hospitals — unaffordable to much of the population — are some of the best on the continent.
This week Kenyan doctors took to Twitter in a bid to explain why they are digging their heels in while public hospitals are paralysed by the strike, and why they refused a 40-percent pay rise offer.
Under the hashtag #MyBadDoctorExperience, the medics recounted experiences of being forced to work without drugs, gloves or electricity and under severe staff shortages that left many on the verge of collapse.
One Twitter user, a doctor who gave only his first name, Anthony, told AFP he had once been in the middle of a Caesarean section when the lights went out.
“The back-up generator was out of fuel. We ended up using a Nokia phone flashlight (as the) torch available had expired batteries.”
At the root of the doctors’ strike is a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) agreed between government and the unions in 2013.
– More than money –
The document promises interns, like Waliaula, will see their basic salaries increase from a minimum $346 (323 euros) to $1,038, while salaries of the highest level doctors will increase from a minimum $1,400 to $4,300 — with added allowances.
While the government says the document is still being fine-tuned, unions say it is a legal deal that they want implemented immediately.
“The thing people don’t realise is… we are fighting for more than just salaries,” said Waliaula.
The CBA also promises doctors continued training, a research fund, proper equipment and support staff. It additionally caps working hours at 40 hours a week and provides for overtime.
Poor salaries and working conditions have pushed Kenyan doctors to flee the public sector or go to other countries where there are better opportunities.
“There is a huge labour deficit. It’s insane, on a weekend we will be two interns running an entire hospital. I have done a call where I didn’t sleep for 48 hours and in the middle of a C-section I started shaking. That shouldn’t happen,” said Waliaula.
Kenya’s main doctors’ union, KMPDU, says Kenya has one doctor to 17,000 patients, while the World Health Organization recommends one to 1,000.
– Wasted public money –
The government has threatened to arrest union officials if they don’t return to work next week, as well as fire all striking doctors, but Waliaula said they would not budge until there was commitment to real change in the sector.
It has said its offer of a 40-percent pay rise would cost it an additional $38 million a year and was “a responsible offer in the context of its obligations to properly manage the country’s finances.”
However this argument has fallen on deaf ears.
Waliaula said she was initially opposed to the strike, until she woke up the day it started to a headline about millions of dollars that had gone missing in the country’s latest corruption scandal.
Then over Christmas, lawmakers awarded themselves each $100,000 as an exit package ahead of 2017 elections.
“It makes me so angry, there is so much money going around. How come there is money for you, but there is no money for me?”