Medics' strike litmus test of State's sincerity in revamping healthcare

Kenya Medical Practitioners Pharmacists and Dentists Union members demonstrate along Eldoret streets Uasin Gishu County on March 21, 2024. [Peter Ochieng, Standard]

Strikes paralyse. Well, that is the point! A strike that does not paralyse humbles the protestors’ self-perception. If the world can move on when you are on strike implies a case of an overstated value and inflated importance–a mockery and joke. But for doctors, a mere hour of absence has life and death consequences. Their muscle has real effects when flexed. Any signs of their dissatisfaction should be picked up early and negotiated to keep them behind hospital walls.  

Different strikes paralyse differently. For some, the paralysis will kick in softly while others it will kill quickly. A doctors’ strike hits differently from a drivers’, though the strike premises may be similar. The strike by medics is in an ‘oxygen’ category – air fails to reach the organs, with life-altering consequences. By the time the medics go back to work, body parts will have been compromised and life-long conditions developed. When hospitals shut down, graveyards open for extended hours. Somehow morgue attendants are not part of the strike–otherwise the air would be fouled to uninhabitable levels.

Is it not immoral for doctors to abandon patients? It is equally immoral for doctors and other medics to allow themselves be taken for granted. Self-love demands protest of any mishandling. True, doctors should find it in their hearts to save lives. But this moral argument is often used to take them on a guilt trip. Guilt-tripping doctors is a way of arm-twisting them to drop the push on their professional rights. This is abusive.

When the only way to improve working conditions is by suspending the present, the consequences are the price paid for a better experience for future patients. The doctors are not omnipresent–they cannot be in the hospitals and in the streets at the same time. They have chosen the streets.

There is a view that compares today’s doctors with those of yesteryears and ends at romanticising the past. Then, doctors were called by the mission unlike today’s who are drawn by money. Holders of this view will see the young doctors as the new generation of money-centered healers. Well, it is hard to discern and judge motives. But to the extent that doctors are unreasonable–like asking for first world remuneration from a third world economy–they can be assessed as greedy.

There is need for the medics to manage public perception as a way of preserving respect for the profession. Their addresses are targeted at government. But to ward off greed suspicions, there is need to purposefully incorporate a component of public education in their communication. They need to face the ‘people camera’ and explain in layman’s language how they are only demanding what they deserve. To further cure misunderstandings, it helps to walk the public on the journey to the point of laying down stethoscopes and microscopes. They need to remind the people that the streets are uncomfortable and that they cannot wait to go back to their comfort zone–the hospital.  Without this public education, the profession will leave the streets with a dented image. 

Why does the government let the strike stretch on for so long? Interestingly, people have high expectations of government. This view sets up an expectation that doctors’ ailments will be settled easily. But sadly, government has normalised disappointing its citizens. Initially, the government talked tough only to be drowned by the medics’ band and choir in the streets. The government would want to brand doctors as the bad ones. But, just like the waywardness of a child will always be tethered to parenting, the government will always shoulder the greater responsibility for strikes and their consequences. Knowing this, government pride and acting mighty and immovable is unnecessary, unwise and time-wasting. I’m yet to see a tear fall from a government official moved by the hustlers dying from doctor-free hospitals. How do you navigate through such helplessness unmoved? Only if they meant nothing to you from the beginning! The poor are nothing. Your pride is everything.

Doctors are some of the most intelligent minds in any country. They are also among the most expensively trained. Their strike is as a war - people die daily. Should their strike be given pedestrian “normal” handling? No! It should be stopped from happening in the first place! When handling doctors, you cannot bypass their intellectual endowment. For such high-functioning minds, government needs to front its best negotiating team. When doctors ask the president to come to the negotiating table they are asking for higher quality mediation, which is a critique of the present team.

Coffers or doctors? The way the government handles the striking health workers is a litmus test on its sincerity on revamping healthcare. With strikes, taxes strike too.  Money-thirsty agents of Mammon are finding striking doctors spoilers to their much anticipated tax-grab party. There is no heart for healthcare without a heart for health practitioners.

What should victims process their pain? Falling ill with doctors on strike is a sick timing! The sick and their families feel caught up between two loveless institutions – doctors and government. Private hospitals that are open cannot receive them – they live up to their name – private. Consultants in high end clinics located on high floors of exclusive plazas cannot see them – even the consultation fee is inaccessible. The poor curse their poverty as parents and spouses helplessly watch their loved ones writhe in pain. They curse the taxman who has changed their notes into coins. In the desperation, evil thoughts find cracks to get in – including the thought of hijacking a doctor and get them to the house where their beloved lies in pain. But as it is, they powerlessly hope against hope. A sigh of relief will come when a return to work formula is announced.

Can the church produce enough miracles to stand in for the absent medics? With medicine shelved, miracles are called upon. This is a season of a steep rise in the number of calls made to the pastor by desperate people needing divine intervention. Jesus compensated a messed up health care system with miracles of healing. Miracles and medicine have this in common: they do not heal all, only some.

A methodology question: could the striking doctors engage their brilliance to diversify methods of demonstration and exclude dancing? There is a cadre misfit. It also mocks the sick. An innovation of new striking methods reflecting the seriousness of the matter is welcome.

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