By Sola Ogundipe
This six-letter word thatÂ sends cold shivers down the spine of the hapless Nigerian has had cause to rear its head in recent times.
The issue of strike has almost become a permanent feature in the health industry but even as federal health institutions are reeling under the onslaught of a paralysing workersâ€™ strike, worse may be yet to come if feelers from the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) are anything to go by.
Should the NMA, umbrella body for doctors in Nigeria make good its threat to embark on a fresh wave of medical doctorsâ€™ strike to press home its demands , it would be the umpteenth time doctors in Nigerian public hospitals would be downing tools in recent times for seemingly irreconcilable issues particularly, those connected to wages and conditions of service.
In the last few weeks, the NMA has been spoiling for a showdown as doctors are on the war path over governmentâ€™s alleged failure to accede to their agitation for better pay and better conditions of service for its members in the Federal Service.
Part of the main request is adoption and implementation of a Medical Service Scale (MSS) for doctors in government employment.
Even as the NMA meets today to decide the next step after expiration of their ultimatum, uncertainty over the strike threat is at fever pitch, particularly as healthcare services in federal tertiary and specialist hospitals in Lagos and some states continue to be unavailable despite suspension of the week-old strike called by the national body of the Medical and Health Workers Union of Nigeria (MHWUN).
The outcome of a scheduled meeting between Minister of Health, Prof. Babatunde Osotimehin and top executives of the association, in a last-ditch attempt to avert the strike before expiration of the ultimatum on Thursday, remained uncertain.
The Minister has been urging Nigerians to prevail on the doctors to sheath their swords and give peace a chance. His anxiety is justified.
It is the hapless patients that have been at the receiving end. Over the years, Nigerians have come to recognise strike as a weapon public sector health workers wield with an uncanny degree of precision.
From the resident doctors to consultants, nurses to laboratory scientists or cooks to cleaners, the story has been the same. In the health sector, the consequences of a strike within the health sector are often dire. Thereâ€™s always hell to pay for the hapless citizen.
Past strikes by doctors have never augured well for the general public. Such strikes are typically trailed byÂ unnecessary and avoidable loss of human lives.
Talk of the heavy toll on patients several of whom lose their lives or survive to live with the scars for the rest of their lives. From hindsight, the Nigerian health scene is topsy-turvy. Indeed, quantifyingÂ the cost in human lives of all the public tertiary facilities in Nigeria is paralysing becauseÂ a strike by medical doctors under the NMA would be colossal to say the least.
The NMA which has been under pressure to shelve its proposed strike in public interest, remained resolute in pressing home demands for better pay and better conditions of service for doctors in the Federal service through adoption and implementation of the Medical Service Scale (MSS).
Appeals by the Minister of Health and other concerned Nigerians have so far met a brick wall as the doctors stuck to their demands. The question on the lips of most persons now is just how many lives must be lost while the doctors and government sort out the issues at stake?
How many must die needlessly?
Attempts to further clarify issues with the NMA top brass have been unsuccessful.
A call made to the NMA National President, Dr. Prosper Igboeli was unfruitful as he was unwilling to offer an official response. â€œI am in a meeting. Where did you get your information? I cannot talk to you now. Call me back later,â€ was his response.
However, Chairman of the Lagos State branch of the NMA, Dr. Adedamola Dada, said all hands needed to be on deck to avert the looming strike.
â€œWe should be more optimistic in averting the strike rather than preempting it.â€
But except the doctors back down, and resolve to shelve the proposed nationwide strike, Nigerians may be in for another round of anguish and gnashing of teeth as far as the health sector is concerned.
While it is appreciated that no doctor would turn his back on his patient, the current state of matters would not have been so dire had government released the circular on MSS in the first place to calm the agitated doctors.
â€œWe donâ€™t want to go on strike, but government should do its part. We didnâ€™t like what government agreed to give but we say letâ€™s have what it said it would give.â€
Meanwhile, only skeletal services put in place in the last few days since the strike commenced were available at many of the affected government health institutions when Saturday Vanguard visited some health institutions Friday afternoon, more than 48 hours after the announcement by the MHWUN General Secretary of the suspension of the strike.
At the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), National Orthopaedic Hospital, Igbobi, Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital, Yaba and Federal Medical Center, Ebute Metta, many patients who turned up early in anticipation that normal services would have resumed, went back home in disappointment.
Patients on admission were still being discharged while new admissions were turned down even as emergency cases were rejected outright or immediately referred to other centers.
Some health workers said they were yet to receive payment of the monetisation arrears in their personal accounts. It was generally gathered that although the strike was officially suspended, it remained effective in principle.
In a reaction, Chairman, LUTH branch of the MHUWN, Comrade Isiaka Busari in a telephone interview confirmed the suspension of the strike.
â€œIt is true, but there are conditions that are yet to be met. We need to confirm if indeed the money has been disbursed to our members here as agreed.
We are assuming the strike is suspended based on the decision of the national body, but we are yet to confirm that everyone has been paid. We had a meeting Thursday to know how far we have gone and what the next step would be. We are still waiting.â€