COVID-19 cases, others to suffer as 16,000 resident doctors begin strike today

• NMA, NARD say families of deceased doctors yet to get benefits 115 days after MoU
• Govt yet to get notice of strike, may invite NARD to parley today
• Lagos did not issue directive to reduce allowances of NYSC doctors, says commissioner

The fear of complications in new COVID-19 cases and related deaths is real as doctors under the aegis of the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) begin a nationwide industrial action today over unpaid salaries, benefits to families of members that lost their lives to the pandemic and hazard allowances.

A breakdown shows that 16,000 resident doctors out of about 40,000 doctors working in Nigeria, representing about 40 per cent of registered doctors, are going to down tools today. That means a lot of medical appointments and surgeries are going to be cancelled, most patients on admission are going to be sent home, and more hospitals will stop admitting new patients because they will not have the capacity to cater for them.

In the last four days, Nigeria has recorded an average of 500 COVID-19 cases in daily figures as the government struggles to deal with a new and more infectious variant of the virus. According to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) figures, 497 cases were recorded on Saturday, 590 cases on Friday, 558 cases on Thursday and 535 cases reported on Wednesday, which is now the highest daily increase in the country since March 4, 2021, when 708 cases were registered.

The doctors strike is also coming at a time of outbreak of cholera in more than 15 states of the Federation. In the last 48 hours, death toll from cholera rose to 69 as cases exceed 1,000 in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), while the disease has already killed 169 residents and infected 5221 in Kano. Already, the NCDC has confirmed 526 deaths and 22,130 suspected cases in FCT and 18 states.

It is also feared that the situation would cause further brain drain and medical tourism where graduating medical doctors are leaving the country daily for greener pastures and more Nigerians are seeking medical treatment overseas, thereby draining the country of scarce foreign exchange.

However, private clinics, quacks, chemists, patent medicine stores, pharmacies and traditional medicine practitioners are going to benefit as patients and their relatives desperately look for alternatives.

Presently, President Muhammadu Buhari is on a two-week medical vacation to the United Kingdom, already spending a total of 201 days on medical leave as of yesterday in his six years administration (since May 29, 2015).

President of NARD, Dr. Uyilawa Okhuaihesuyi, told The Guardian yesterday that there was no going back on plans to shut down public and government hospitals due to inability of the Federal Government to keep to her promise to the doctors in meeting their demands.

“Even if they communicate to us now, there is no going back. It is now 115 days after we signed Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) and Memorandum of Agreement (MoA). They should be ashamed for not being truthful. We cannot be working and not get paid. You make commitments with doctors and you don’t keep them,” Okhuaihesuyi said.

On the negative effect the strike is going to have on ‘common’ Nigerians, he said: “The doctors are also human beings. Abia State owes doctors 19 months salary, Imo State eight and Ekiti two months. Those doctors who lost their lives have not got their insurance benefits and most of us are yet to get the paltry hazard allowance of N5,000. You bring out circulars that you are going to pay and yet you don’t. What will the doctor tell his or her landlord? We go to the same market with ‘common’ Nigerians and our children attend the same schools. How can we survive in the midst of this gross negligence on the part of government? If you were a medical doctor, would you be working in Nigeria? Little wonder more graduating doctors are leaving the country in droves. No wonder more Nigerians are seeking medical treatments abroad because they don’t trust the medical system in the country.”

Although President, Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), Prof. Innocent Ujah, refused to comment on the strike by resident doctors, he decried a situation where the Federal Government is yet to pay benefits to the families of doctors that lost their lives to COVID-19. “Despite our efforts in trying to contain COVID-19, we still have problem with government in the payment of health benefits to those who have died,” Ujah said.

Ujah said there are between 40,000 and 44,000 of over 70,000 registered medical doctors with the Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria (MDCN), including resident doctors, that are presently working in the country.

MEANWHILE, the Ministry of Labour and Employment said it has not received any strike notice from NARD as of yesterday (Sunday). The Guardian learnt that the ministry is ready to initiate a dialogue process today as early as this morning.

The Deputy Director, Press and Public Relations of the ministry, Charles Akpan, told The Guardian that as of last Friday, they were unaware of any impending strike action by the doctors as the ministry has a robust system that allows it to assume its conciliatory role creditably.

His words: “I can confirm that there was no letter written to the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr Chris Ngige, as at the close of work on Friday. But non-receipt of a strike notice will not deter the ministry from performing its role as the chief conciliator of labour disputes in the country. The ministry will invite the executives of NARD to a meeting if need be.”

NARD had in a communiqué released at the end of the National Executive Council meeting last Saturday at Federal Medical Centre (FMC) Umuahia, Abia State, with the theme: ‘The Nigerian Doctor, An Endangered Species: Grappling With A Pandemic, Poor Work Place Infrastructure And Security Threats,’ observed with serious concerns the poor response of most state governments in domesticating the Medical Residency Training Act of 2017 while commending.

“The NEC lamented the acute manpower shortage in most tertiary health institutions and the attendant burnout effects on our members. They noted with serious concerns that this situation is made worse by the ongoing deadly brain drain decimating the nation’s health care system. The NEC observed that despite several meetings with the Presidential Committee on Salaries and other top government stakeholders on the review of hazard allowance for health workers, the hazard allowance still remains a paltry sum of N5,000.

“They also noted the non-payment of COVID-19 inducement allowance to some of our members in Federal and most of our members in State Tertiary Institutions.”

The Ministry of Labour will, though, be busy today, as delegations from the Federal Government and Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) will equally meet in a bid to avert a fresh strike. The chairmen of ASUU branches had expressed readiness to commence a fresh strike over the non-implementation of their agreement with FG on IPPIS.

One of them, Chairman, ASUU, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi, Dr Ibrahim Inuwa, said the protracted strike, which was to press home the union members’ demands for the continued survival of the public university system in Nigeria, was suspended in December after the two parties signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the various issues and providing timelines for the implementation of each of the eight items in the agreement. Inuwa said over seven months after the MoU was signed only two out of the eight issues had been addressed.

He listed some of the outstanding issues to include payment of the earned academic allowance, funding for revitalisation of public universities, salary shortfall, proliferation of state universities and setting up of visitation panels.

Others are renegotiation, replacement of the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System with the University Transparency and Accountability Solution and withheld salaries and non-remittance of check-off dues.

IN a clarification last night, the Lagos State Government has noted the decision of NARD to call out doctors on a strike from today in which the communique cited, among other grievances, a purported directive from the state government, through the Ministry of Special Duties, to reduce the monthly payment of NYSC doctors from N75,000 to N15,000, effective July 2021.

In a statement signed by the Commissioner of Establishments, Training and Pensions, Mrs. Ajibola Ponnle, the claim is false and misleading.x

“The resolutions reached at the 42nd National Council on Establishments (NCE) Meeting held in Lagos on Monday, 30th November – Friday, 4th December, 2020, necessitated the issuance of a circular by the Head of Service of Lagos State, Mr. Hakeem Muri-Okunola, to communicate the decision taken at the Federal level to public servants in Lagos. The directive was that Internship Programmes/Houseman-ship/NYSC Doctors in the Public Service should no longer attract Grade Levels in the Salary Structure as the programmes form part of the training.

“Governor Babajide Olusola Sanwo-Olu remains committed to the welfare of Lagos State Government employees, particularly the health workers who have showed commitment, bravery and resilience in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The State Government, through the Ministry of Establishments, Training and Pensions, will hold a stakeholders’ consultative meeting in the coming week on the implications of the decision taken by the National Council of Establishments on Internship, Housemanship and NYSC Doctors in the Civil/Public Service, which prompted this action.

“The decision of NARD is hasty. We, therefore, appeal for restraint by the Lagos Chapter of the Association of Resident Doctors and Nigerian Medical Association. They should wait for the conclusion of these engagements,” she said.

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