Avert health workers' strikes to end suffering in Kenyan hospitals

Reports indicate that some 11 patients have died since the latest strike by health workers, including doctors and nurses, began. Nakuru, Nyeri and Makueni counties have had health services paralysed.

This is not the first time that doctors and nurses have downed their tools agitating for better working conditions and pay. The Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union, says doctors and medical personnel in some counties have not received salaries for the last four months.

Furthermore, the union claims that with the exception of Machakos, Wajir and Kisii counties, all the other counties have not promoted a single nurse or doctor in the two years that devolution has been in effect.

The veracity of this claim has not yet been established, but the fact that doctors went on strike and two patients in Nakuru have died as a result, is alarming. It tells of bigger problems in the crucial health sector that calls for immediate action. It is unacceptable to lose lives in avoidable circumstances.

Council of Governors chairman Peter Munya validated doctors’ complaints on non-payment of salaries recently by stating that the National Treasury is holding governors to ransom by failing to remit funds to the counties on time. This, he says, is designed to cast governors in bad light; showing they have failed in managing devolved functions, among them, health.

To date, close to 2,000 doctors have voluntarily left government service to look for greener pastures in the private sector. In a country where only 3,300 doctors are employed against an estimated population of over 40 million people, this is worrying. However, Health Cabinet Secretary James Macharia does not appear duly   perturbed by this and has tried to downplay the doctor exodus, terming it a product of media sensationalism.

With more medical personnel threatening to go on strike, indications are that the medical sector is headed for the doldrums unless both tiers of government — national and county — stop mudslinging and engage each other constructively on the way forward. Even as governors complain about the crisis in the medical field, defending their abilities to manage it, the national government is largely quiet.

The mass exodus of trained doctors and nurses from public hospitals is alarming as it adversely affects the poor in society who cannot afford treatment at the expensive privately-owned clinics and hospitals.

Lack of resources at most medical facilities and non-payment of allowances are another cause of friction between county governments and the doctors. Given the level of mistrust between the national government and governors, the National Assembly’s Committee on Implementation of Resolutions recommended that health functions revert to the national government.

The committee observed that over Sh3.7 billion allocated to counties specifically for the health sector was diverted, occasioning the crisis we are witnessing today. While the committee’s recommendation resonated well with doctors who have all along demanded that medical services be a function of the national government, governors who have been calling for total devolution of functions were opposed to this.

The national and county governments and the striking health workers have a duty to the tax payer that must be discharged without distractions. While we empathise with the doctors and nurses in the firm belief that they must get remuneration commensurate with the great work they do in keeping the nation healthy, it is our wish that even as they push the government to accede to their demands, they consider the suffering who need their services more than anything else.

With good structures in place that ensure fair play, better pay, deserved promotions, availability of medical stores and a promising career, it does not really matter who controls the health functions as long as everything runs fluidly. Stakeholders are beholden to put the interests of the country first. Nobody should die or suffer from disease because there was no doctor or nurse to help out.