Kenya’s Health Workers Go on Strike as Coronavirus Deaths Pile Up

Nurses and Clinical Officers gather in front of Kenya´s Parliament during a march in Nairobi on December 14, 2020. Nurses and Clinical Officers went on strike on December 07, 2020 demanding safer working conditions after more than 60 health workers died of COVID-19 coronavirus since the beginning on the pandemic. …
PATRICK MEINHARDT/AFP via Getty Images

The Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Union (KMPDU) announced a nationwide general strike to begin Monday in the face of mounting Chinese coronavirus infections and deaths, which doctors say are the product of government incompetence in issuing proper protective gear.

The strike follows a similar walkout in September, also the result of doctors and other health workers expressing outrage at having to continually bury their coworkers throughout the pandemic. That month, government authorities revealed evidence the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (Kemsa), the agency responsible for procuring protective gear for health workers, had signed multiple contracts with suspicious corporations that resulted in the needed equipment never arriving. Some of those companies had ties to government officials and were founded shortly before the deals were cut, with no evidence they had any experience in selling medical equipment.

The KMPDU has challenged the government for years to treat health workers adequately. Prior to the pandemic, doctors protested that the government preferred to hire slave doctors from Cuba over recent graduates from home, even though the Cuban doctors had, in some cases, received such poor training that the Kenyans had to tutor them to prevent injuries.

In a public notice about the strike Sunday, the KMPDU said it had spent eight months attempting to negotiate with the Kenyan government for better protections for health workers fighting the Chinese coronavirus pandemic, but the government had not been responsive to the union’s concerns. Many health workers have also complained for months of not receiving their wages in time.

“Since the declaration of the COVID-19 [Chinese coronavirus] Pandemic in our Country, doctors and other frontline healthcare workers have worked under a difficult environment,” the announcement — in a letter to the executive branch of government — read. “KMPDU has extensively engaged all relevant Government Ministries, County Governments, Council of Governors, the Legislature (Senate and National Assembly) and your office for the last 8 Months without success.”

Among the demands the letter lists as the government failing to have addressed are proper insurance and work compensation for health workers regularly exposed to coronavirus patients, personal protective gear (PPE) for all doctors, and permanent and stable employment for 2,000 unemployed doctors. The issue of unemployed doctors has caused tensions for years between the government of President Uhuru Kenyatta and the KMPDU, as Kenyatta has repeatedly chosen to import Cuban slave doctors over hiring Kenyans.

“The workforce is strained. The government must recruit more health workers since the burnout cannot be merely wished away. This is one of the reasons the doctors are going on strike,” Chibanzi Mwanchonda, the secretary-general of the KMPDU said in announcing the strike on Monday. “The workers are wounded, demotivated and feel abandoned by their employer.”

According to Mwanchonda, 2,900 health workers have tested positive for the Chinese coronavirus and 32 have died. Nationwide, Kenya has confirmed 94,768 cases of Chinese coronavirus as of Tuesday; 1,647 people have died.

One health worker discussing the strike on Kenyan news not only urged doctors to leave Kenya, but all citizens to flee.

“If I could tell anything to my younger self, it would be don’t join medicine,” Madaktari Waomboleza said. “Parents, don’t let your children go to medical school. And for the rest of us who are here, if you can get out of this country, get out. It’s not for us.”

The strike will feature an extensive list of health workers, not just doctors treating coronavirus patients. Pharmacists, dentists, and medical specialists treating other issues — but nonetheless exposed to the Chinese coronavirus given lack of adequate protective gear — are also not working until further notice. The strike affects health workers employed by the government, not private institutions.

The strike has created a chaotic situation in the country’s hospitals, according to the Daily Nation.

“Thousands of patients who could not afford services at private hospitals were taken home by their families yesterday,” the newspaper noted. Pregnant women, in particular, were leaving the cities to seek traditional healers and midwives to perform alternative childbirth services.

“Services were hit hard at most top regional hospitals, including Coast General, Kakamega General, Nakuru Level Five, Moi Teaching, Kericho, Kisumu County, Moi County in Voi and King Fahad in Lamu,” the newspaper detailed. “A deserted compound, unoccupied benches at the outpatient wing, padlocks on the administration block doors at JM Memorial welcomed patients as doctors, nurses and clinical officers stayed away.”

The newspaper noted that outrage over dead health workers exposed to coronavirus was fueling much of the desire to strike. The funeral of one such doctor, Stephen Mogusu, punctuated the closing of Machakos Level Five Hospital in the eponymous city.

“Mogusu is our thirteenth fallen soldier, the youngest doctor to have died from coronavirus-related complications,” Mwanchonda, the head of the KMPDU, told the outlet. “It is sad, devastating and circumstances which KMPDU would not like to see again. We have drawn the line. This is about saving and protecting the doctors’ lives.”

The Kenyan government has responded to the strike by vowing to replace striking workers and vowing that citizens should not fear a lack of access to health care.

“I can confirm that my Ministry and that of Labour and Social Protection continues to engage with union officials to find an amicable solution to the issues that concern their members,” Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe said this week. “Kenyans can now enjoy their holidays without anxiety and fear of seeking unavailable services in our public facilities as it should be.”

Kagwe threatened to fire those participating in the strike.

Kagwe and the Health Ministry generally have faced severe scrutiny over the government’s failure to provide proper PPE to health workers. At the heart of PPE issues is the scandal surrounding Kemsa, the authority responsible for buying it. Kenya’s Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission revealed in September that it had found a $72-million “irregular expenditure” at Kemsa which officials have failed to justify. That expenditure was tied to government contracts to companies like “Shop ‘N’ Buy,” founded in February with no known history of selling PPE.

Kagwe, the health minister, distanced himself from the scandal this week, claiming Kemsa is separate from his ministry.

“The irregularity was for Kemsa to try and get goods without knowledge by the Ministry of Health,” Kagwe said during a television interview. “The other questionable issue is the issue of budget of goods procured … Kemsa board needs to be consulted for all procurements above given budget.”

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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