When the doctors need saving – Eden Kagwiria Nyagah, Kenya

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I often picture myself like this – a student fresh out of medical school, degree in hand and a hopeful smile on my face with the irrepressible confidence that I am about to help the ailing, about to make a difference. I imagine that that is the same kind of optimism and altruism most, if not all, medical students graduate with: a burning desire to make a change.

However, right now, it’s hard to see this in the Kenyan doctors who have been on strike since 5th December 2016. The effects of their strike are immense, especially since they work in the volatile healthcare industry.

Imagine this: A young boy with burn marks writhes in utter pain. All his mother can do is watch him hopelessly, as she is constricted by her finances and is unable to afford a private hospital. At least seven patients died on the day the strike began. One patient, who was afflicted by a severe case of ulcers, even opted to end his own life to escape the pain. Expectant mothers in labour were turned away or left unattended. One young mother, however, got lucky considering the circumstances and delivered her baby with the help of a guard working at the hospital. Even though the child was saved, it is without doubt that the conditions were not exactly pleasant or sanitary for the newborn. Ill patients are left to squirm in the sun, while premature babies are discharged from their incubators with their mothers cocooning them with a bunch of cloths in order to achieve a temperature close to that of the incubators. Additionally, traffic accident victims are abandoned to die in public wards countrywide. While the exact number of patients who have died due to the strike is unknown, the pain that has been inflicted on them is undoubtedly profound.

Moreover, several patients at the Mathare Mental Hospital took the absence of their practitioners as an opportunity to escape. They tactfully jumped over the hospital’s fence and proceeded on their way, blending into the sea of residents. Their whereabouts remain unknown; all that’s left as proof of their time at the hospital is their dark blue overalls crumpled near the hospital’s fence.

Meanwhile, the public hospital doctors have taken to the streets protesting for a 300% pay rise. The very same healthcare practitioners that immersed themselves in this career with the aim of selflessly helping others are the very ones who are leaving them to die. Ironic, isn’t it? Somehow, they’re completely indifferent to the cries of the public, and the distress and anguish that hangs pungently in the atmosphere.

However, can their actions just be justified?

Attending six years of medical school is not only mentally challenging, but also financially draining. A year of unpaid internship, poor working conditions, a pile of loans and bills, together with an unsatisfactory paycheck, are some challenges medical students have to face. Before the actual strike, several doctors engaged in constant negotiations with the government to increase their wages, such as when they made their pay demands to the government in July 2013 Collective with a Bargaining Agreement. Yet, their demands were not met.

Although the nurses called off their strike on 20 December 2016, the doctors strike is still going strong, and the majority of patients continue to suffer. It is true that a doctor’s work is highly demanding, but their demands for a 300% pay increase seem a little outrageous. Moreover, the Kenyan government does not seem ready to agree to this request.

All of this raises the questions: How long will each party play hardball? Why are both parties completely comfortable with the ongoing situation despite its deplorability? This is not such a black-and-white situation. While the doctors are in need of a raise, the country’s citizens are painfully facing their demise. To further disrupt the situation, the government is not ready to give what is being demanded. All Kenyans can do is hope that the status quo will improve tomorrow, where public hospitals will revert to being abuzz with activity lined with a hope of survival.

Many opinions have been brought forth regarding the matter, but what is yours? Who do you think needs saving?

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