Ending incessant strikes in the health sector
On 1 July, medical doctors under the aegis of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) commenced, once again, another indefinite strike action. Dr Kayode Obembe, the NMA president, who announced the commencement of the strike said the decision followed the expiration of a two-week ultimatum the association, gave the government on its 24-point demand. He said the NMA was taking the decision to save the health care system from anarchy that was palpably imminent.
Some of the major issues the NMA hinged its strike on include reserving the position of chief medical director to only medical directors, appointment of Surgeon General of the Federation, passage of the National Health Bill and provision of adequate security for doctors. The doctors are also asking for an increase in duty, hazard and specialist allowances, as well as budget for residency training programme.
Since the NMA commenced its strike, which crippled health services in public hospitals throughout the country, there has been a barrage of arguments from different quarters on the timing and propriety or otherwise of the strike action. While the Trade Union Congress (TUC) faulted the strike, describing it as selfish, anti-people, ego-driven and provocative, the Medical and Dental Consultants Association of Nigeria (MDCAN), relying on the judgment of the National Industrial Court, which stopped the federal government from implementing the agreement it had earlier reached with the Joint Health Sector Union, opted out of the strike. The MDCAN urged its members nationwide to ignore the strike and continue to provide services to patients.
It is our view that while the NMA can justifiably make demands it believes will help improve the health sector, as well as the lives of its members, it could do so with adequate and conscientious consideration for the stability of the entire health sector and the well-being of Nigerians, as a whole. Members of the association must acknowledge and embrace the equally important roles being played by other members of the health team, when making demands. A situation where the NMA goes on strike, not just to seek its interests but to also compel the government to disregard the legitimate demands of other health workers is, to say the least, deplorable.
The NMA is expected to be at the frontline of promoting industrial harmony and team spirit in the health sector, not vehemently fanning embers of discord. The association should be less strident in turf protection in a multidisciplinary sector like health, where the ultimate goal (providing optimal health care services to patients) is dependent on the efforts of so many healthcare professionals, all playing crucial and beneficial roles.
Perhaps, the most worrisome reason why many stakeholders think this strike action is one too many is that it is occurring at such a time when the country is battling serious challenges resulting in heightened need for the services of NMA members. Aside from the millions of Nigerians, who, even in normal times, struggle to access health care for various dire health conditions, many Nigerians are now ending up in hospitals in critical conditions, as a result of terrorist attacks that have recently become rampant in the country. One would expect that at such a trying time as this, all health care professionals, NMA members inclusive, should be more concerned about saving the lives of Nigerians.
While we urge the NMA to be more circumspect before embarking on costly strike actions that could lead to avoidable loss of lives, we also call on the federal government to once and for all be decisive in resolving the numerous contentious issues resulting in incessant strike actions in the nations’ health sector.
It is also necessary to have a comprehensive review of the laws regulating industrial action in the health sector. The present provision, which allows health workers to proceed on an indefinite strike action after a 21-day statutory notice, is inappropriate. The statutory notice period should be reviewed upwards to a minimum of three months. We believe that whatever issue leading to such notice could be and indeed should be resolved within the recommended period and thus halt the trend of health professionals abandoning work.
These constant, catastrophic and, yet, preventable strikes have, over the years, resulted in the untimely death of many Nigerians. Several patients have also been maimed and scarred for life as a result of complications they suffered because health workers abandoned work. This trend is unacceptable and must stop.