Coming at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is ravaging the world, the current nationwide strike by the Nigerian resident doctors is saddening. The doctors, under the auspices of the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD), commenced the indefinite industrial action on Monday, June 15, after the expiration of their 14-day ultimatum to the Federal Government. The strike affects all the federal and state hospitals. Although medics treating coronavirus patients are exempted, the president of NARD, Aliyu Sokomba, warned that they would join the protest if the government refused to meet its demands within two weeks. Oftentimes, government is also at loggerheads with the umbrella union of doctors, the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), over working conditions. This is unfortunate.
Although the resident doctors’ strike is one too many, we sympathise with them over their plight. Their struggle is fair and just considering the poor conditions in which they work. Despite the risks associated with the job, for instance, there is no life insurance or death-in-service benefit for their families. They have also complained about inadequate personal protective equipment and ridiculous hazard allowances.
Part of their demands include payment of arrears owed them in federal and state tertiary health institutions; the universal implementation of the Medical Residency Training Act in all federal and state hospitals; immediate implementation of the revised hazard allowance and the COVID-19 inducement allowance; and a halt to pay cut or sacking of their colleagues in Kaduna and other states.
Similar welfare issues had triggered angry protests by the doctors in the past. In August 2017, for instance, they planned a nationwide strike to protest the failure to pay their salary shortfall of 2016 and January to May 2017. They also complained of not being enrolled and captured on the Integrated Personal Payment Information System (IPPIS). Luckily then, a Federal Government’s team led by the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige, averted the strike. A few weeks ago, doctors in Lagos also downed tools over harassment of their members by security agents. It took the intervention of the state governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, to call off the action.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the problems in our health sector. Major health facilities are either non-existent or inadequate. Many Nigerians lost their lives because they could not travel abroad to treat their ailments due to the lockdown imposed by different countries.
It is common knowledge that the health sector is generally underfunded in Nigeria. Less than five per cent of the country’s budget is allocated to it. And despite the current COVID-19 pandemic, the Federal Government recently decided to effect over 40 per cent cut in health care spending. This disdain for health also manifested in the omission of N186 billion out of the N500 billion health sector component of the revised 2020 budget by the Budget Office. The N500 billion is the proposed intervention fund for COVID-19.
The neglect of the health sector somehow affects the quality of life of many doctors. Some of them cannot afford to put their children in good schools. And due to lack of protective equipment, some of them have fallen victims to the COVID-19 disease. According to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), over 800 health workers have been infected by the virus.
This is why the exodus of medical personnel from Nigeria to some foreign countries is not surprising. According to NOIPolls, nine in every 10 doctors consider work opportunities abroad. It is estimated that over 4,000 Nigerian doctors already practise in the United States. A report by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation in August 2018 estimated that African countries had spent $4.6 billion to train doctors who would then migrate to the US, United Kingdom, Australia and Canada. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also offer opportunities for Nigerian doctors.
The government should make every effort to revamp her health sector. Government at all levels should not just increase the annual budget for the sector but also ensure that every allocation is accounted for. They should consider adequately equipping our health institutions to world-class standards. We believe that this will help stem the tide of medical tourism, which reportedly costs Nigeria over $1 billion every year.
The Federal Government should also endeavour to keep faith with any agreement it enters with the medical unions. People who have sacrificed their lives to save others must be given priority attention. Government should continue to negotiate with the doctors and do everything possible to resolve the contentious issues and bring them back to work.