Ending Incessant Health Workers’ Strikes

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In the past few weeks, many Nigerians were subjected to untold suffering as a result of the strike action embarked upon by the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD), and many more may suffer in the coming weeks, as another group of health workers, the Joint Health Sector Unions (JOHESU) recently commenced a nationwide indefinite strike action, code-named: “Operation Alligator Bite.”

According to JOHESU, the decision became inevitable due to federal government’s repeated failure to implement series of MOUs and agreements it had with the union, as well its refusal to abide by the decision of the National Industrial Court of Nigeria on the case it had with the union. NARD, on its part, had cited government’s repeated failure to ensure “circularisation of house officer’s entry point, despite various collective agreements on the issue” as one of its major grievances.

These moves by NARD and JOHESU are the latest manifestations of the malaise of unrest and disruption that has become the hallmark of the nation’s health sector in recent years. Indeed, within the last five years, the Nigerian health system has experienced about 15 different strike actions, involving doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other health workers.  In each of these instances, provision of quality health services to Nigerians was paralysed, leading to needless deaths and complications of health conditions.

This recurrent disruption of healthcare services that has become the norm in the Nigerian health sector is an appalling anomaly that must be urgently and decisively addressed. The health sector is a critical sector, where the prompt intervention of dedicated and committed health professionals is often what makes the difference in life-and-death situations, especially for patients in dire straits.

Even more worrisome is that the reasons tendered for the industrial actions are often the same, from year to year:  remuneration and welfare of workers, poor infrastructure, career stagnation, failure to implement agreements, discriminatory policies and poor funding. It beggars belief that these basic issues cannot be resolved to avert the miseries and tragedies that result from these strikes.

While we agree that conflicts and disagreements are sometimes unavoidable in any industry, including the health industry, it is high time we realised as a nation that strikes by health workers is like an internecine war; an ill wind that blows nobody any good and must thus be avoided by every means possible.

We call on the government to give the nation’s health sector the priority attention it deserves. It is the height of irresponsibility to handle matters relating to health with flippancy, considering that some of the consequences of such could be irreversible. Rather than waiting for health workers to embark on industrial action before calling them for discussion, the government must take measures to proactively resolve the issues at the heart of the incessant disharmony in the health sector. Issues of remuneration, health sector leadership and proper funding must be sincerely tackled, if Nigeria really desires a world-class health sector that adequately serves the healthcare needs of the citizens.

We must also hasten to urge health workers to exercise maximum restraint and stop the recourse to strikes action for virtually every disagreement, considering the enormous negative effects on the citizens. Indeed, if strikes were the solution to the problems besetting the health sector, all the issues leading to conflicts should have been resolved by now. It is thus imperative for stakeholders in the health sector to begin to rethink the rules of engagement whenever there are issues to be resolved in the sector. We have to save patients from this macabre ritual of needless deaths and complications due to strikes.

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