THE Federal Government is currently preoccupied with desperate measures to cushion the effects of the ongoing indefinite strike by the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD). The panic measures, which are necessitated by past ugly experiences in the wake of similar strikes in the nation’s healthcare sector, include the marching order to Chief Medical Directors of Federal Government hospitals that consultants should step up their game and fill the yawning gap, the engagement of casual doctors and the order that patients be taken to hospitals belonging to some agencies of the Federal Government.
These afterthoughts underscore the fragile nature of the healthcare sector. The sector has been overstretched under successive federal administrations that encouraged medical tourism with the cumulative loss of billions of naira annually. Had the present government exhibited the level of concern it is showing now before the expiration of a 21-day ultimatum which was extended by another seven days, perhaps the doctors’ strike would have been averted, thereby saving the country from the current trepidation. Nigerians are going through too many pains to be burdened yet again by striking doctors.The fresh disruption in the chain of activities in the healthcare sector has inflicted agony, sorrow and tears on many homes, especially persons of little means with life-threatening ailments.
NARD ascribed its discontent to the government’s refusal to honour a mutual agreement which encapsulated the resolution of persistent shortfalls and unpaid arrears of salaries earned in both federal and state tertiary health institutions and the enrolment of resident doctors into the Integrated Personnel Payroll Information System (IPPIS) since 2003. The agreement also resolved the non-implementation of adjusted House Officers’ entry grade level equivalent since 2014 and the stagnation of promotion and non-promotion of members who had met the requisite criteria. In a last-minute effort to avert the current strike, the Federal Government and officials of NARD met last week and signed a Memorandum of Settlement. But the ordinary National Executive Council (NEC) meeting of NARD in Abuja, on September 3, rejected the Memorandum of Settlement, even though, relying on the government’s promissory offer, both the Minister of Health, Professor Isaac Adewole and his Labour and Employment counterpart, Dr Chris Ngige, had declared that the doctors had resolved to put the strike on hold.
In taking the harsh decision, the NARD declared: “Neither the federal nor state governments has shown commitment to the resolution of issues at stake nor honoured previous agreements.” That the government demonstrated a laissez faire attitude while the deadline subsisted was unfortunate. It portrayed itself as being comfortable with a systemic collapse. Even with its damage control strategy, it failed to show full appreciation of the basic principles of handling and managing industrial disagreements and disputes. Nonetheless, we insist that both parties in the ongoing dispute must give room for dialogue, trust and understanding, if only to ensure that no further damage is done to the health sector and the psyche of the populace.
From 2010 when the dispute became a major issue, the demands of the resident doctors have become more kaleidoscopic. They have donned the garb of self-survival and failed to show total commitment to the repositioning of the health sector. Their demands no longer include the urgent need to raise the bar in the sector. The doctors need to be more pragmatic and realistic in their demands to emphasise the imperative of firming up basic institutions and structures in the sector. Group and individual interests should not override the overall interest of the nation.
It is apparent that the government no longer enjoys the confidence of the majority of the unions in the country because of its record of flagrant disregard for mutual agreements. The perennial strikes by members of the Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universities (ASUU) and the fresh threats by the Non-Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universities (NASU) and others to go on strike over welfare matters demonstrate this very clearly. But while the issues have subsisted because of the obvious lack of commitment and goodwill by the government, intransigence on the part of the unions has equally exacerbated the disputes, whereas a critical element in labour relations during disputes is the principle of compromise.
Therefore, both the government and NARD must tread softly because of the implications of the current strike by resident doctors to the health of the citizens, especially the poor and the sick; the domino effects on the national economy, and the fragile state of the country where the fangs of poverty have turned the average citizen into an angry person. The two camps should revisit the admonition of the Speaker of the House of Representative, Honourable Yakubu Dogara, when he waded into the crisis in July last year: “Leadership is essential in solving any problem. It means that your eyes are always on the solutions and not the problems.”