NIGERIA:The Health Workers Strike

November 2014 TheGuardian; COMING just a few months after medical doctors nationwide held the country to a long industrial action, the current nationwide strike embarked upon by the Joint Health Sector Union (JOHESU), is yet another telling story of a polity lacking cohesion and orderliness. The needless deaths, disability and confusion the strike has so far generated are avoidable; the stakeholders should have done everything to prevent it, at least for humanitarian reason. It is not too late, however, for both the governmental authorities and the aggrieved workers to sheathe the sword, whatever the grouse and perceived justification for their action.

The health sector has been plagued by too many strikes that have subjected the citizenry to untold hardship. Doctors under the umbrella of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) and National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) ended their own strikes not long ago. The spate of strike leading to deaths is most regrettable.

JOHESU comprises the Senior Staff Association of Universities, Teaching Hospitals, Research Institutes and Associated Institutions (SSAUTHRIAI), Medical and Health Workers Union (MHWU), National Union of Pharmacists, Technologists and other Professionals Allied to Medicine (NUPTAM), Non-Academic Staff Union (NASU) and National Association of Nurses and Midwives (NANM).

The union’s grouse, as expressed by its president Dr. Ayuba Wabba, includes non-implementation of a welfare agreement with the Federal Government. Sadly, the terms of the agreement are recurrent issues that have led to strikes in the past; and which nonetheless remained unimplemented.

According to Dr. Wabba, “JOHESU has been overly patient in the face of glaring injustice, insensitivity and extreme provocation by the Federal Government. We have been longsuffering, matured and over patriotic which also has its limits. The strike currently going on is, therefore, a last resort to address government’s lack of commitment and reciprocal goodwill extended to it by JOHESU in resolving our demands on a permanent basis”. He said none of the issues under contention has been fully implemented, threatening that the strike might be extended to other secondary and primary health institutions.

Reports from across the country paint rather a grim picture of patients in need of medical attention. Medical services have been paralysed in many states. From Lagos to Abia and Kogi states, patients are being thrown out in droves. Even Boko Haram bomb victims are abandoned without medical attention. Other patients with various ailments flocking to hospitals are left unattended to. Some patients in dire need of attention at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), Idi Araba, reportedly refused to vacate the hospital until they were attended to. The trauma, pain and agony the sick and the dying are going through are heart-rending.

The health workers should, on compassionate ground, call off the strike and engage government in dialogue, to sort out the lingering issues. Government, on its side, should be sincere and consider the critical situation in the country. The demands of the Union should be addressed without further delay, to end the harvest of unavoidable deaths. It is a matter of honour for government to honour agreements it signed willingly with the unions.

The country may have been declared Ebola free; but there is still need for vigilance against re-introduction, as that would erase whatever gains made in that regard. The health workers have a crucial role to play, even on other ailments and at the nation’s entry points, to screen people. As the year rolls to an end, many travellers would be entering the country. Complacency on the ravaging Ebola epidemic in West Africa could be dangerous.

It is not enough for government to appeal, as it has done, to the group to call off the strike. Concrete steps should be taken to meet their demands. And why are these demands seemingly ignored year after year? Why must Nigerians be reaping baskets of strikes? Why must government forever battle with various industrial unions over its failure to abide by agreements? When will the government begin to honour agreements it consciously signed with different unions? Nigerians are traumatised by the incessant industrial actions that also impact on the wobbling economy.

Simply, the situation shows that government cares little about the people; about the poor state of the hospitals and how this impacts on the healthcare delivery system. Each time healthcare workers go on strike, hundreds of people die. But government seems less concerned as no one is punished or made to pay compensation to the victims for dereliction of duty.

The incessant strikes that affect the entire country at the same time call to question the issue of federalism. It is wrong for all health workers in the country to have one encompassing union whose actions and decisions affect workers in all the states of the country. If the system had been well structured, different states would manage their own labour unions, with consideration for their peculiar circumstances, such that strike in one state is not unduly replicated in other states. The issue of genuine federalism remains fundamental to the lingering labour and social crises. Its resolution, ultimately, is the solution for real progress in the country.

 

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