Health workers set for strike amidst Covid-19 pandemic

Nigeria’s Health Minister, Osagie Ehanire

A nationwide health crisis capable of diminishing any gains made in the containment of the coronavirus pandemic in Nigeria is looming.

About 24 hours after the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) commenced an “indefinite nationwide strike” on Monday, another key organ of Nigeria’s health workforce is threatening to down tools.

The Joint Health Sector Unions, a group of other health workers other than doctors, said it would embark on a nationwide seven-day warning strike if the government fails to meet their demands which includes payment of hazard and inducement allowance by mid-night of Sunday, September 13.

In a statement signed by its national chairman, Joy Josiah, JOHESU said the warning strike will only involve federal institutions while the states and local government health institutions will be placed “on red alert for possible entry into the fray if the federal government foot-drags in attending to our demands”.

JOHESU in July threatened to down tools over what it described as “gross discrimination” against its members in the implementation of the newly-approved inducement and hazard allowances for medical workers.

The association is also protesting the alleged withheld salaries of its members.

Hazard pay, a wage supplement paid to workers who do dangerous jobs, has been the grouse of Nigerian health workers since the advent of the coronavirus pandemic.

Health workers, being the first respondents to patients, have continued to be at risk of exposure to the coronavirus and as a result, more than a thousand have tested positive for COVID-19.

They have repeatedly protested the lack of access to full Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and life insurance especially for their members on the frontline who die while treating people suffering from COVID-19, a rare strain of coronavirus that has killed almost a million people globally.

The Nigerian government had promised a special COVID-19 hazard and inducement allowance of 50 per cent of Consolidated Basic Salary to health workers in federal health institutions and designated COVID-19 centres.

Prior to this, health workers received N5,000 as hazard pay across board.

The government had also promised frontline health workers life insurance, but this promise has not been kept, according to the president of the NARD, Aliyu Sokomba, who announced the resumption of an industrial action by the doctors on Monday.

Resident doctors, certified doctors undergoing residency to become consultants that had suspended its one-week strike on July 21, downed tools once again on Monday, this time indefinitely over the government’s failure to previous demands.

But the federal government faulted the doctors’ decision, saying more than half of their demands have been addressed.

The Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige, in a statement, on Monday, said the government “had already addressed six out of eight demands of the striking doctors”.

On the other hand, JOHESU said some of their demands, which have lingered for almost a decade and are backed with specific court judgements, collective bargaining and MOUs, have been treated with “levity and outrightly violated” by the government.

Some of these lingering demands include: Review of implementation of COVID-19 special hazard allowance; payment of withheld salaries of members; adjustment of CONHESS salary structure; and implementation of ADR consent judgment.

Since 2014, JOHESU has been engaging the government over some of the aforementioned demands asides those that have to do with COVID-19. This has resulted in strike actions over the period.

On April 17, 2018, Nigeria’s health sector suffered one of its biggest blows when JOHESU members downed tools over similar demands.

The strike, which lasted six weeks, caused many deaths and left millions without care.

Patients passed through untold pain and their relatives grumbled as both federal, state, and local government health institutions were brought to their knees.

To avoid a repeat of such a scenario, JOHESU president, Mr Josiah, in Monday statement called on “statesmen, traditional rulers, and religious bodies to proactively engage the government to hid to their demands within the lifespan of pending ultimatum”.

Reacting to the looming health sector crisis, Charles Akpan, the spokesperson of the ministry of labour, said Mr Ngige “is planning to meet with the doctors who are already on strike before attending to the threat by JOHESU”.

“As you know, the labor ministry serves as an intermediary between the government and any aggrieved union,” the spokesperson told PREMIUM TIMES Monday evening in a phone interview.

“My principal will meet with resident doctors on Wednesday to find a way to resolve their issues. Subsequently, he will engage JOHESU on their threat to embark on strike,” the official said.