Sunday, 4th June 2023

Averting a looming strike by doctors

By Editorial Board
29 January 2023   |   3:00 am
Health authorities in the country, led by the Health Minister should not treat the reported plan by resident doctors to embark on a nationwide indefinite strike with levity.

Health authorities in the country, led by the Health Minister should not treat the reported plan by resident doctors to embark on a nationwide indefinite strike with levity. The warning been given about two weeks ago, and reiterated some days back. It will be unfortunate if government ignores the warning and allow the threat to become a reality. On too many occasions, such warnings had been neglected until it was too late, giving vent to situations of huge collateral damages, such as the eight-month or so strike by university teachers from which the education system is still reeling.

For a country suffering from acute health facilities deficiencies, and medical personnel moving in droves out of the country for greener pastures and environment that is more conducive to professional fulfillment, a strike action by doctors at this time will undoubtedly occasion serious harm to the lives and health of Nigerians, particularly the common Nigerians. Government should rise to the occasion and avert the impending strike in the public interest.

According to reports, the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD), has written to the Minister of Health, Osagie Ehanire, intimating him of its plan to lead doctors in public health facilities on another round of industrial action if its lingering demands were not addressed. Members of the association in public hospitals, in the letter, reportedly said its National Executive Council meeting had been scheduled for January 24 to 28, 2023 to deliberate on the issues, noting that the decision to either embark on the strike or not would be determined at the meeting.

The issues listed in the letter signed by NARD President, Dr. Emeka Orji, included omitted 2020 MRTF payment; irregularities in the new MRTF circular inconsistent with the Medical Residency Training Act, existing Collective Bargaining Agreements and current economic realities and Review of CONMESS salary Structure.

The letter, tagged: ”Imminent National Industrial Disharmony in Health Sector: A Matter of Urgent Administrative Importance“ was copied the Senate President, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Director Budget Office, Chairman, Nigerian Governors’ Forum, IGP, among others.

It noted that the NARD issued an ultimatum to the Federal Government six months ago on account of lingering unresolved issues affecting its members, including the irregularities in the new circular on upward review of the Medical Residency Training Fund (MRTF), outstanding payment of the arrears of the new hazard allowance, nonpayment of the skipping arrears for 2014, 2015 and 2016.

Other demands are nonpayment of the consequential adjustment of minimum wage to some of its members, delay in the upward review of the Consolidated Medical Salary Structure (CONMESS), Salary arrears of its members in State Tertiary Health Institutions running into several months, including Abia, Imo, Ondo, Ekiti and Gombe States, and non-domestication of the Medical Residency Training Act (MRTA) in most states across the Federation.

The association, in the letter, acknowledged the effort of government towards resolving some of the issues, but noted that “many of them remain largely unresolved and have now become sources of serious nationwide agitation threatening industrial peace and harmony in the health sector.”

It is clear from the letter that the issues in contention are not new. They have lingered over the years and have been the sources of industrial disharmony in the health sector. Some of them have been on the table since 2013, raising the question: what kind of government keeps issues in abeyance for upwards for years without any action?

The Federal Government had on occasions promised to implement the demands of the doctors without fulfilling its promise. As a result, the strike has been recurrent with damaging effects across the country. Unless government acts proactively on this, Nigeria’s already parlous health care system will receive yet another bashing and the poor citizens who cannot afford the expensive services of private hospitals would be the main victims.

Once again, the ineptitude of government in supposedly rudimentary matters is in full display. Why should matters in issue be allowed to fester until a strike is called? What does it take for a government which rode to power on the crest of popular opinion, promising to bring change to the polity, fail in such simple matters?

Nigerian medical doctors play a crucial role in the health sector. Whereas they have been known to perform creditably in the United States, the United Kingdom, the Middle East and other developed countries, here at home, Nigerians invariably pass a vote of no-confidence in them. The problem therefore must be with the environment and at the core of this is the government.

Governments at the Federal and State levels have not met their obligations to the health sector. The nation’s hospitals have long been identified as lacking in equipment. Remuneration or incentives which are expected to make the profession attractive are not provided. Too many people have died because of poor facilities in the hospitals and no less a person than President Muhammadu Buhari has shown he has no confidence in Nigeria’s health-care facilities by spending months in medical facilities in the United Kingdom. This is a tragedy.
The government should use this opportunity to put things right. It is possible to assert that there should be no strike in the health sector. This can be done by taking the right steps and ensuring that all the facilities and personnel in the sector are properly taken care of. Millions of dollars spent annually by government and individuals in foreign hospitals can be saved with the right policy in place and the ailments treated locally.

Government should act immediately and avert the threatened strike by urgently meeting with the union to resolve the dispute. If government had at any time signed an agreement with unions, it is simply honourable to fulfill its own side of the agreement.

In a country where public officials are accused of routinely stealing millions and where national legislators earn millions of naira monthly, no excuse can be given for not meeting the demands of health care professionals whose services are fundamental to the survival of citizens.

In this article