•Patients, others recount pain, trauma when health workers abandoned duty posts
Health workers, who are members of the Joint Health Sector Union (JOHESU), have called off their recent strike. But patients and their relatives are still counting their losses and bemoaning the pain they went through while the strike lasted.
While the industrial action was on for six weeks, virtually all health care activities across public hospitals in the country were grounded. Many Nigerians were sent to their early graves, while many had their ill health compounded. Those who could afford the bills moved their ailing relatives to private hospitals.
Mr. Daniel Chidiebere is one of those who have bitter tales to tell due to the strike. He still finds it difficult to believe that his dear sister, Comfort, is dead. She died while the strike was still on. In fact, the bereaved brother said his sister was killed by what he described as the heartless attitude and negligence displayed by the striking health workers. He accused them of abandoning the poor woman and allowing her illness to deteriorate, leading to her demise.
According to the embittered Chidiebere, his sister was being treated at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) when the health workers commenced their strike on April 17. He said the health workers rebuffed pleas by family members to attend to the sick woman, just as they frustrated doctors’ efforts to rescue the dying patient.
“Three people died at the hospital the day my sister died. Pharmacists and laboratories were shut down. Nurses, physiotherapists and others were no anywhere near the hospital premises.
“Just when we thought that she was responding to treatment, they embarked on a strike and five days later she was gone. My 58-year-old sister died the day we were to relocate her to a private hospital,” he said.
He said that the deceased would have survived if members of JOHESU at LUTH had not disrupted her treatment.
Acting chairman, Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), Plateau State branch, Dajel Bulus, also criticised the strike. He narrated how JOHESU members frustrated medical doctors by tampering with chemicals in laboratories and locking up medicine stores at hospitals to hinder smooth healthcare delivery.
A 67-year-old man, Mr. Gbenga Adeosun, who lives in Mushin, Lagos, told Daily Sun that he has been treating diabetes and other conditions at LUTH in the last eight months. He said his condition got worse and he almost died when his doctor could not keep their appointment due to the strike.
“If not that one of my daughters came to see me a week after, I would have been dead by now. She quickly took me to a private hospital and the result of the tests they ran on me was frightening. Although we spent so much money during my admission at the private hospital, I thank God that I am alive,” he said.
A journalist with a national daily in Lagos, Gbenga Mustapha, said when he took his sick mother to the Federal Medical Centre, Yaba, he was advised by the doctor on call duty to take the woman elsewhere for treatment.
But the strike by JOHESU appeared to be more than an ordinary strike. Investigations showed that there has been a long-drawn rivalry between the other health professionals and medical doctors. The two have dragged government into their war, leading to frequent disruption of health care services across the country.
The health workers have always accused government of easily acceding to doctors’ demands while leaving theirs unmet. But the doctors always counter the claim saying that most of JOHESU’s demands were selfish and not viable.
As a result, the medical doctors and health workers seem to have boxed past and present administrations into a corner. During the last strike, doctors specifically opposed salary adjustment and harmonisation as requested by other health workers. They threatened that acceding to the demand would precipitate a crisis that may lead to the collapse of the health sector in the country.
Doctors, under the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), had in the past described JOHESU as an “illegal body” and urged government to ignore the group’s threat.
Some of JOHESU’s major demands include salary adjustments, promotion arrears and improved work environment for members. The members are prevailing on the government to honour the agreement it signed with them in September 2017.
The NMA had earlier, in an open letter to the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige, warned that doctors were not prepared to receive same salary with other health workers.
According to the former NMA president, Prof. Mike Ogirima: “Nobody is preventing them (JOHESU) from getting a salary increase. But all over the world, there is relativity package for medical workers different from other health workers.
But the national vice chairman of JOHESU, Ogbonna Chimela, gave a contrary view and explained that the union was not asking for salary harmonisation with medical doctors but for an adjusted CONHESS salary.
“They think that we want to start asking for same quantum of salary with them, but it can never be the same because our point of entry differs. If I enter service at grade level 8, before I can get to grade level 12, I would have spent nine years in service. There is no way our paths can ever cross, they will continue to gain more until they leave service. So, they are the ones that are even oppressing us. They just don’t want our own adjustment to see the light of day,” he said.
While the bickering has continued for more than a decade in such a critical sector that handles human life, many casualties are being recorded.
To be more active in their struggles, five unions, Senior Staff Association of Universities, Teaching Hospitals and Research Institutes (SSAUTHRI), National Association of Nigerian Nurses and Midwives (NANNM), Medical and Health Workers Union of Nigeria (MHWUN), Nigerian Union of Allied Health Professionals (NUAHP) and Non-Academic Staff Union (NASU) came together to form JOHESU.
When the strike seemed to drag for more than necessary, Nigerians, especially patients, pleaded with the workers to sympathise with them and call off the strike, JOHESU members insisted that the strike would continue until government was ready to meet their demands.
Commenting on the issue, president of the NMA, Dr. Francis Faduyile, said the strike affected the patients because full medical activities were not in place in hospitals.
“We cannot deny the fact that the strike is having an effect on the patients because work is not going freely in the hospitals. Although the doctors are providing enough treatment for the patients generally, if I say hospitals are functionally going on well, that is a lie.
“If what the JOHESU members are asking for is true to their emoluments, yes they can take it. However, if they want to take things by eroding the areas affecting the doctors, then we will say no. One thing they are asking for is pay parity and we (NMA) are saying it is not possible.
“I am not the employer of JOHESU members; however, there are laws guiding the hospitals and the health sector and you cannot break the laws because you are trying to satisfy a group of people,” he said during the strike.
In a chat with the reporter in Lagos, the national chairman of National Association of Nigeria Nurses and Midwives (federal health institutions sector), Wale Olatunde, insisted that the union had the interest of Nigerians at heart but maintained that the caregivers also needed care.
“These issues we are talking about started in 2009. We had an agreement with the Federal Government in 2014; it was jettisoned. We went on a 10-day strike in September last year, where we signed another agreement with the Federal Government.
“But the Minister of Health said there was no agreement between JOHESU and the government until we presented papers signed by the parties involved. That goes to show the insincerity on the part of government. We gave government a 66-day notice before we embarked on the strike. But what did they do during the period? They were never concerned.”
Olatunde said it was unfortunate that the federal government had reviewed the salary of some workers in the sector twice in the last few years while that of JOSEHU was left unattended to.
“We are asking the government to adjust for us just like they adjusted for others. But rather than face that reality, they are telling people that we are asking for equality with doctors. Is level eight the same thing as level 12? If l am able to rise to level 12, l should enjoy the benefits of level 12,” he said.
Speaking with journalists in Abuja while the strike was on, JOHESU president, Biobelemoye Josiah explained that the strike was prompted by what he called government’s blatant refusal to implement the agreement it reached with the union on September 30, 2017, on adjustment of salary structure.
But a gynaecologist with a private hospital in Lagos, who gave his name as Mr. Ogundipe, told the reporter that it was high level wickedness on the part of JOHESU to abandon patients to suffer or die for personal interests.
“Although our government is often not sincere when it comes to honouring agreements, it is against our training to abandon your duty to protest ill treatment by your employer. There must not be a vacuum because life is involved. In the private sector, where I have functioned for over 19 years, you seek a better place when you are not satisfied with the packages by your employer,” he said.