Opinion / Commentaries
Thursday, 12 Jan 2017 15:22 EAT
For objectivity, I'll open this article by declaring my interest in the doctors' strike. My daughter is a medical doctor practicing in the United States. She is among hundreds of physicians and nurses from Kenya who have decided to advance their careers overseas. I know at least five Kenyan medical practitioners in my small circle of acquaintances working in different disciplines of medicine.
Multiply that number many times and in many countries in the Diaspora and the number of qualified Kenyan physicians rendering services abroad could be in thousands. That is what Kenya is missing. And that is what Africa is losing as the brain drain continues to bite the continent due to varied reasons ranging from poor remuneration to bad politics, to bureaucracies, that fail to appreciate the pivotal role of medical practitioners in the day to day life of citizens.
For the past six weeks, there has been a complete shut-down of government medical facilities in Kenya due to a strike by doctors who are demanding better working conditions. During that period, dozens of people have died and many are quietly wasting away at home for lack of medical care.
Kenyan doctors are not demanding the moon, but are asking for a pay structure that is reasonable and is commensurate with their training and skills. And this is not a new struggle by Kenyan doctors. They have been striking intermittently for years for similar reasons. Every time, the government promises but fails to deliver while salaries for politicians and other government officials continue to climb insanely.
Compared to doctors in many countries, Kenyan medical practitioners are the poorest paid. They earn between 80,000 to 120,000 shillings a month, an equivalent of 8,000 to 12,000 USD. In the US, employers begin scouting for doctors during their second year in medical school. The demand for young doctors is so high that employers are prepared to pay well above Sh1 million per a sign-up, and well in advance of graduation. They sign a contract and the money is theirs. Once on the job, their salary starts at 135,000 USD per year and continues upwards depending on the discipline.
What Kenyan doctors are demanding is a 300 percent increase over their meager pay which would bring them within the salary range of their counterparts in equally developed African countries. Instead, the government is offering them a 100 percent increase which the doctors have declined, and for genuine reasons.
Instead of approaching this critical matter with urgency and equanimity, the government has chosen threats of dismissals and incarceration of union leaders, tactics that are as archaic as they are perfunctory. Replacing a medical doctor is not as easy as replacing a politician in a by-election. Many years of training and practice make this cadre of professionals particularly difficult to substitute.
Instead of issuing dismissal threats, officials should sit down and seriously negotiate with the strikers. The sooner that is done the better because Kenyans are suffering.
Doctors and nurses especially those posted to rural areas work under difficult conditions. Drugs are often in short supply and equipment is either dysfunctional or nonexistent. Their living quarters are generally unsuitable for health professionals. It is unfortunate the government would rather have them drift away and work abroad than pay them what they rightly deserve.
This is an election year and by failing to sort out the mess the ruling Jubilee government is not only frustrating doctors but short-changing the taxpayers.
The writer is a veteran journalist, author and former Member of Parliament for Bahari. All his books are available in bookshops in Nairobi and on Amazon.com