Patients stuck as health care workers’ strike bites

Parents and children at the children’s ward at Mulago National Referral Hospital in May 2022. PHOTO/FRANK BAGUMA

What you need to know:

  • Ms Nabbanja, who was commenting on the on-going health workers’ nation-wide sit-down strike, threatened to use her power to sack defiant health care workers.  

Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja yesterday lashed out at striking health care workers, and said the government is sick and tired of working under immense pressure from civil servants.   

Ms Nabbanja, who was commenting on the on-going health workers’ nation-wide sit-down strike, threatened to use her power to sack defiant health care workers.  

Hundreds of patients, including those with life-threatening conditions, were left stranded at deserted government health facilities across the country yesterday as nurses and midwives joined the Allied Health Professionals to protest government’s delay to raise their salaries.

The Allied Health Professionals have been on strike since May 16.

‘‘We are cursing civil servants for continuous demonstrations. You’re [endangering] peoples’ lives. This time round while using the powers vested in me by the President, those who will demonstrate are doing it at their own risk because there are many people who are volunteering and one may go to demonstrate and on coming back find that the job is taken. Stop putting government on pressure,’’ Ms Nabbanja said.

She added: ‘‘People will come and take your jobs. I will direct the Resident District Commissioners and Chief Administrative Officers to note down those who are demonstrating such that they can be replaced accordingly. We are tired and we will not kneel down for everyone.’’ 

Ms Nabbanja made the remarks during the celebration of the martyrdom of St Andrea Kahwa at Kooki Haibale, Kakumiro District.

However, the leaders of striking health workers appeared unmoved as they trivialised the Prime Minister’s threats as “empty” and accused her of “belching” when thousands of frontline health care workers across the country are starving.

The striking essential cadres include nurses, clinical officers, psychiatric clinical officers, lab scientists, radiographers, pharmacy technicians, medical records officers, orthopaedics and dental technologists among others.

The strike excludes doctors and pharmacists (degree holders). But some of them have stayed away from duty, saying they cannot do their work without the input of the striking carders.

Lower health facilities such as health centre IIs and IIIs are run by allied health professionals such as clinical officers and nurses.

When Daily Monitor visited some medical facilities across the country, we discovered that even patients in critical condition were struggling to receive medical services.

 “I have had a patient on oxygen at the female ward here at Kabale Regional Referral Hospital since Sunday when she was admitted. But on Thursday morning (yesterday), when some nurses were trying to give her medicine another nurse emerged telling them to pack the medicine and go away,” Ms Evas Kamukama, who was attending to a patient, said.

At Mulago National Referral Hospital, Ms Jazila Mbambu, from Kibuli, Kampala, told this newspaper that her daughter has a neurological disease but she could not get doctors to treat her.

“I came here at 8am but they told us that they are striking. We need permanent doctors for these kids, not those who are always striking. These kids need help. Striking will not help them,” she said.

Patients at Mukono General Hospital said a few medical workers who were available were asking for between Shs10,000 and Shs20,000 to offer them services.

Those who did not have the money were asked to go to private hospitals.

Ms Annet Namukasa, who had a sick child, said: “I tried to approach some medical officers and they ordered me to go to private clinics.”

 She said she does not have money to go to a private hospital.

Ms Alice Mutesi, who had taken her child for immunisation,  said some patients left in frustration.

 “I did not have an immunisation card and the nurses asked me for Shs10,000 noting that they just sell the cards and yet this is a government hospital,” Ms Alice Mutesi said.

However, at Kalangala Health Centre IV,  Mr Samuel Mugisha, the officer-in-charge of the facility,  said: “We had a meeting yesterday [Wednesday] where we agreed not to take part in the strike given the situation at hand, especially in the maternity ward, we are still engaging with the union top leadership for guidance.”

The demands

The striking medical workers have accused the government of failing to comply with the  Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) of 2017 to have their pay increased.

In the agreement, the leaders of the striking health workers said the government agreed that each month, diploma health workers should get Shs3 million, certificate holders should bag Shs1.3 million and degree holders should be paid Shs4.8m.

But the leaders said in the recently released salary structure, the government only enhanced the salary of doctors to the level they had agreed on in the CBA.

They have also accused the government of failing to absorb their colleagues with degrees and other higher qualifications because of a scheme of service they said is very old and only favours doctors.

The leaders of the striking medical workers said they need clear information from the government on how much their salary has been enhanced.

They insisted that they will not go back to work until they get assurance that they will get the exact amount in the CBA.

Despite the devastating effect on patients, the leaders of the striking health workers said in a statement yesterday that no one should show mercy to patients.

“The allied health professionals associations alliance leadership calls upon all their professionals to stay calm as we wait for the response from the President. We encourage every professional to stay home until an official communication from the secretariat,” a statement released by the group,  reads.

Mr Justus Cherop, the president of the Nurses and Midwives Union, when asked whether they will carry on with the strike said they were meeting government officials over the issue. He didn’t give details.  

The country has experienced a series of devastating strikes, majorly by doctors under their umbrella body Uganda Medical Association and the Uganda Nurses and Midwives Union  (UNMU).

The government has just resolved the issues with science teachers which saw them end a strike over poor pay that started on May 9. The strike had serious effects on learning.

The industrial actions are coming at a time when the country is experiencing skyrocketing prices of essential commodities like soap, cooking oil, sugar and fuel among others. 

what they say

In an interview with Daily Monitor yesterday, Dr Abed Bwanika, the Kimanya-Kabonera County MP, said selectively enhancing the salary of particular workers will not address the pressing issues of civil servants.

“There should be a commission to harmonise the pay of all civil servants, not only scientists. All the pay of civil servants must be harmonised,” Dr Bwanika said.

Dr Arthur Bainomugisha, the executive director of Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment, said poorly planned increments can topple the government.

“When you increase doctors’ salaries right now, another group will rise and then another one. It can bring the government to its knees. The government should frankly engage the medical workers rather than threatening to sack them.”

The Minister of Public Service, Mr Wilson Muruli Mukasa, said: “We are committed to engagement with them to end the strike.”

When contacted, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Public Service, Ms Catherine Birakwate Musingwire, asked our reporter to write to her.

She had not yet responded by press time.

However, she had earlier said the government has earmarked Shs400b for the enhancement of salaries of health workers and scientists.

Ms Musingwire said the health workers should be satisfied with what they are given, adding that the health workers should be calm because the final salary structure is yet to be released.

Ms Anifa Kawooya, the State minister for Health in charge of general duties, appealed to the health workers to resume work saying the government is doing its best to address their grievances.

“The issue of salary enhancement for health workers and scientists was discussed in the Cabinet meeting. The health workers should be patient. They should be informed that we are handling their grievances,” she said yesterday.  

Ms Kawooya told this newspaper earlier that the enhancement of salary will be made but in bits because of limited resources. 

Compiled by; Tonny Abet, Alex Tumuhimbise, Fahad Malik Jjingo, Brian Adams Kesiime, Al Mahdi Ssenkabirwa, Sylvester Ssemugenyi, Kennedy Kakembo, George Muron, Sylivester Ssemugenyi, Felix Ainebyoona, Robert Muhereza, Jessica Sabano.