The government’s handling of the doctors’ strike has been careless. It has left the country hurting and the doctors more outraged. This has forced the industrial action to make worse an already bad situation in our healthcare facilities. Across the country, immunisation cycles for children against the six killer diseases have been disrupted, antenatal services interrupted and mothers left untended to pangs of labour. Deaths have also been reported after some doctors even stayed away from offering emergency services they had promised to offer despite the strike.
Oddly, both Health minister Ruth Jane Aceng and her junior colleague Joyce Moriku of Primary Healthcare agree that the doctors’ demands are genuine. Ms Moriku also accepts that dialogue should have been and remains government’s best option in resolving the impasse. Just who then ill-advised the President to adopt at the outset, a hardline and an uncompromising stance?
Government, without a doubt, opted for the wrong option by first bullying and ordering about the doctors instead of entering into dialogue as a first step. Also government’s ultimatum to doctors and ordering Resident District Commissioners to police doctors in hospitals was a misjudgment and blunder. Indeed, the about turn by government confirms that its belated recourse to dialogue should have been the President’s first option, not the second.
To say the least, it’s ridiculous for leader of government business and Premier Ruhakana Rugunda to admit that Cabinet got a brief from Health minister only on Monday evening after the strike began on Monday last week and a pre-emptive order issued same day.
The instituting of the inter-ministerial committee to study the doctors’ demands and dialogue with them should have come prior to the ultimatum, which in turn should have become a last resort. In sum, government’s knee-jerk reaction implies that it hasn’t learnt any lessons from previous national crises. First were the teachers, then university lecturers, and then court prosecutors, and now medics.
The doctors’ demands for better pay, duty facilitation, improved working condition, better functional facilities and equipment, are realistic. Similar incremental salaries the medics are demanding have been granted for teachers and lecturers. This is why Treasury Secretary Keith Muhakanizi’s argument is untenable that Shs14 trillion revenue collection is rather thin to raise pay for the striking doctors.
The core issue is that we just haven’t set our priorities right. What government should do is to set up a Salary Review Commission, offset and harmonise the grossly skewed salary disparities among executives and lower cadres across ministries, departments, and agencies. Only then can a durable solution be worked out to end the current doctors’ strike and future clamour for fair wages.