Ugandan health professionals have condemned this week’s imprisonment of officials from the Kenya doctors’ union over a strike.
Dr Fred Bisso, the president of the Uganda Medical Association, says no one will now blame a Kenyan or Ugandan health worker for taking their skills to Europe or South Africa if, at home, fighting for better pay earns them a jail sentence.
On Monday, court in Kenya jailed seven doctors’ union officials for failing to suspend a pay strike that has spanned two months. Consequently, the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists’ Union urged private medical service providers to join in with a 48-hour suspension of professional services.
Indeed, doctors in the likes of Nairobi hospital and AAR Healthcare Ltd issued statements on Wednesday announcing a two-day sit-down strike. The seven union officials were freed by the appellant court later on Wednesday.
For Dr Gerald Mutungi, a public health specialist, in any fight, some people have to make sacrifices, and that is what the jailed officials did.
“[What private players did] is solidarity that you want to see everywhere. But of course it is [unlikely to happen in Uganda],” Dr Mutungi said.
Although the Uganda Healthcare Federation executive director, Grace Kiwanuka, supports Kenyan private players for suspending services over jailed officials, she is cagey about striking as means to an end.
“In the end, the most affected people in such strikes are the patients. For me, the strike should be the last resort after dialogue has failed,” Kiwanuka said.
But Dr Bisso is worried that developments in Kenya have a wider implication on the region.
“If Kenyan doctors are going on strike over pay, then a Ugandan doctor who gets Shs 66,000 per month as lunch allowance since 1996 should be appreciated for their patience. Kenyan doctors get about Shs 1m lunch allowance. We have been hoping that the Ugandan government would learn from Kenya and make things better. With current developments, I am not wrong to suggest that things may never get better for a Ugandan or African doctor!” Dr Bisso told The Observer yesterday.
No African country meets the recommended doctor-to-patient ratio, with many health workers moving to the West where they are remunerated better.
Bisso advises government to honour commitments such as the Abuja declaration’s allocation of 15 per cent of the national budget to the health sector. This should enable the sector to train and retain specialist professionals.
A starting Kenyan doctor today earns an equivalent of UShs 4.3m per month. Under the new agreement, they would earn a minimum of UShs 10m per month. Their Ugandan counterparts earn an average of UShs 1m per month. In 2013, the Kenyan government promised to increase salaries for medical professionals. But four years on, the promise remains just that.
The Kenyan agreement also involved tackling shortages of medical equipment. But Kiwanuka argues that such lofty targets are difficult in poor countries like Uganda. Instead, government needs to partner private service providers.
“We must admit that government lacks the resources to invest in specialised equipment at all levels. But private players have that capacity.
Government can buy our services at a subsidized fee,” she said. “For instance, if a patient goes to Mulago and they need, say, dialysis or an MRI scan, government can refer them to a private facility that offers that service and that facility later bills government at a subsidized fee.”