AS HEALTHCARE WORKERS TAKE THE ROAD OF STRUGGLE
DSM DEMANDS IMPROVED PAY AND WORKING CONDITIONS FOR HEALTH CARE WORKERS
* FOR FREE, PUBLIC-FUNDED AND QUALITY HEALTHCARE UNDER DEMOCRATIC WORKERS CONTROL
A strike wave is blowing through the health sector. Doctors, nurses, pharmacists, midwives, laboratory staff and other categories of healthcare workers are downing tools and grabbing placards. The very fact that this is taking place during the Covid-19 pandemic shows the seriousness of the situation. This is not any attempt at blackmail, the medical staff are facing both the pandemic and the chronic state of the country’s health care system. The issues for which they are going on strike concerns both new and old problems arising out of the rottenness of capitalism and its inability to develop any facet of Nigeria.
For instance on 22 June 2020, resident doctors suspended an indefinite nationwide strike which lasted for a week and won modest concessions over pay and “grossly inadequate” Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Almost as soon as this happened, doctors in Cross River, Ekiti and Ondo States took a similar path. In Lagos, the epicentre of the pandemic, doctors are being owed months of wages and conditions are maturing towards strike action. No doubt, it is a big indictment on the APC and PDP capitalist governments that in the midst of a raging pandemic, the frontline army necessary to beat back the invasion has to down tools due to unavailability of the most basic equipment to work with and non-payment of allowances and wages. This is unacceptable!
The Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) is proud to announce its solidarity with the struggles of healthcare workers. We shall be ready to support any actions necessary to challenge the rabidly anti-worker and anti-poor capitalist governments at federal and state levels until all demands are met. We enjoin all working people, the labour movement, student movement and youth to back the struggles of health care workers. In the final analysis the struggle of healthcare workers is organically linked to the interest of the rest of the population for a working and functioning public healthcare system – something which is urgently needed to beat back coronavirus and other deadly diseases like malaria, meningitis, Lassa fever etc.
PPE, wages, hazard allowance and working conditions
The dominant issues of the strikes are wage, hazard allowance, lack of protective equipment and poor working conditions. This reflects on the one hand consequence of the age-long underfunding of the health sector by successive capitalist regimes. On the other hand, it demonstrates the hypocrisy and the criminal strategy of governance-by-deception adopted by the current APC and PDP governments at federal and state levels who regularly paint rosy pictures on television screens and newspapers that government is providing healthcare workers with all they need while in the real world failing to provide basic PPEs let alone adequate wages and allowances. The result is that about 812 healthcare workers have contracted the virus as of June 2, 2020.
For instance in Ekiti State, medical doctors under the aegis of the National Association of Government General Medical and Dental Practitioners (NAGGMDP) covering more than 100 primary healthcare centres, 19 general hospitals and three specialist hospitals, on June 30, 2020 commenced an indefinite strike. “The doctors accused the government of subjecting them to what they described as unnecessary hardships through shortage of manpower, poor pay and arrears of unpaid allowances” (Premium Times 6/7/2020).
Five days after doctors commenced their action, other healthcare workers in the state under the Joint Associations and Unions of Ekiti State Healthcare Workers announced a three-day warning strike. The union comprises the state chapters of the National Association of Nigerian Nurses and Midwives (NANNM), Medical and Health Workers Union of Nigeria (MHWUN) and the Nigerian Union of Allied Health Professionals which comprises pharmacists, among others.
CROSS RIVER STATE
However it is a different ball game in Cross River states where doctors under the aegis of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) have had to withdraw their services in protest at the refusal of the state government to officially admit the existence of the virus in the state despite the evidence of at least 5 residents of the state who had test positive.
The Governors of Cross River and his counterpart in Kogi State, Ben Ayade and Yahya Bello respectively, have been in the news for months for playing down the severity of the pandemic. “Last week, Ikpeme Ikpeme, chief medical director of the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital (UCTH), had announced that five patients tested positive for COVID-19 in the hospital. But the state government accused him of spreading falsehood. Ben Ayade, the governor, had repeatedly said efforts made by his administration has prevented a COVID-19 outbreak in the state” (The Cable, 5/7/2020).
Despite the enormous resources that Lagos State commands and its grandstanding over its preparedness for the COVID-19 pandemic, health care workers in the state do not fare better. At the moment, Lagos state has the largest COVID-19 infection figure in the whole country. Yet this reality has not prevented the Lagos state government from owing health care workers backlog of wage. The state still pays the same N5000 per month hazard allowance to doctors in its employ and has failed to implement any serious insurance cover for any category of health care workers despite the growing risk to health workers. Also there is inadequate PPE.
Lagos state APC government is a master in deception. So bad is condition of health care workers that the chairman of the National Association of Nigerian Nurses and Midwives (NANNM), Blessing Israel, alleged that unavailability of the personal protective equipment (PPE) at various hospitals and some isolation centres in the state, have forced the healthcare workers to reuse items such as masks. “We are being taken for granted and we will not take it. As of June 20, a total of 480 nurses were already exposed and 90 confirmed positive with one death and 16 discharged. In all these, we are still being subjected to avoidable hardships. That is unacceptable, and if these things are not resolved soon, we will not hesitate to withdraw our members from isolation centres,” she said.
It was the accumulation of these terrible conditions that forced medical doctors under the employ of Lagos State to issue a threat on 4 June 2020 to embark on industrial action if the state government fails to meet its demand after the expiration of its 21-day ultimatum.
According to the Chairman of the Guild, Dr. Oluwajimi Sodipo, “issues that have warranted the ultimatum included, challenges in the response especially as it concerns testing capacity for health care workers and patients in hospitals; shortage of Personal Protective Equipment in isolation centres and hospitals; non-inclusion of the Guild and other health care workers unions in decision making with the attendant increase in health care workers infection, morbidity and mortality. Other issues include non-implementation of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Federal Government and national associations/unions of health workers by the Lagos State Government on health insurance, hazard allowances and other palliatives for health workers, as well as the shortage of doctors.
While the Lagos State government has not yet met the doctors’ demands to a satisfactory level, more than 30 healthcare workers attached to two of the Lagos State isolation centres have been disengaged. The affected workers who were part of the first set of volunteers at the infectious disease hospital (IDH), Yaba, and those drafted to the Onikan isolation centre, include medical doctors, nurses and pharmacists. According to a report by PREMIUM TIMES, three of the disengaged officials, comprising two nurses and a pharmacist, have tested positive for coronavirus (7/7/2020). Inevitably, healthcare workers in Lagos State, as well as counterparts in other states, will have to take the road of struggle if they hope to change the terrible situation that exists.
Mass struggle is the key
Without struggle, nothing will change. It is not a coincidence that the same ruling elite that could not invest in public healthcare for decades is equally found wanting in the midst of a pandemic. It reflects the weakness of capitalism (a system based on profit and not human needs) and the lack of faith of the capitalist elite in the country itself. This explains their “take the money and run attitude”. While the pandemic has recently made it difficult for the elite to travel abroad, yet it has not motivated them to really develop healthcare sector save for some minimal investment in isolation centres, diagnostic laboratories and equipment. But four months since the first case of coronavirus, a majority of the public hospitals remain in their comatose state and many Nigerians continue to suffer and die from other diseases like malaria and Lassa fever for example.
Therefore, appeals to the good sense of the government will not resolve anything. Only the road of mass struggle will win any serious concession. It is deeply unfortunate that the NLC, TUC and ULC trade union centres have not taken the lead in fighting for the medical workers’ demands and emergency action to deal with the pandemic. This has meant that the medical staff are forced to take action during the pandemic to ensure they have money to live on and that there are the necessary medical facilities to treat the sick.
In Lagos state in particular, it is crucial that the medical guild and other health unions realise the need not to delay action any longer. A well mobilised strike complimented by a series of public activities like press campaign, socially-distanced rallies, leafleting and protests to sensitize the public will be very crucial to open the eyes of the working masses to the governance-by-deception employed by the government at all levels. At the same time, it is necessary to unite the disparate actions of different layers of health care workers by planning for a one-day nationwide strike of all health workers to be followed by other actions. There is always strength in unity. Such a day of action, especially if backed by the entire labour movement, will help to send the right signals and can force some concessions out.
Ultimately, while struggles for pay and conditions are important, so far capitalism continue to exist, any concession won now can always be taken away again another day. A genuinely free, public-funded and democratically managed public health care sector including sanitation and clean water is the answer to the needs of health care workers and the populace. But this is impossible on the basis of capitalism. This is why it is equally necessary for the struggles for save the health care sector to be linked to building a movement to overthrow capitalism and enthrone a workers and poor people’s government armed with socialist policies.