By Muyiwa Adetiba
The Ogun State chapter of the medical association went on a warning strike during the week. In doing so, it followed the footsteps of its Osun State cousin which has been at logger heads with its state for over a year now and has been on strike for about half as long. At a point, the entire Western zone threatened to join in solidarity to enforce a class interest irrespective—or in anticipation of the expected repercussions. Much of the Fashola years as Governor of Lagos State was bedevilled with doctors’ strikes over one thing or the other. As we speak, one or two state chapters of the association in the South-Eastern Zone are either downing tools or have downed tools. The South-South too has had its own share. In fact, it seems to me that there is no time during the year that at least one chapter of the medical association is not on strike. Although this issue pre-dates the democratic era, it seems to be getting worse by the year. I’d like the leadership of the national body to correct me if I am wrong, but I have not read of a medical body anywhere in the world that downs tools as often as Nigerian doctors do.
It would have been easy to understand why they keep going on strike if previous strikes had brought significant improvements to the health care sector. The fall out at least to people outside the profession, is that the medical profession is worse off by the incessant strikes. Almost everybody can see it except the doctors themselves. The hospitals are still consulting clinics in terms of supply of medical equipment and drugs. And they have actually deteriorated in terms of the quality of personnel from the time soldiers first used the term ‘hospitals are now consulting clinics’ as a coup alibi. Doctors are not as respected at home or abroad as they were in the 70s. They are certainly not as competent. Significant medical advancement in terms of technology, surgery and skill level has long left us behind. Nigerians who train abroad are no longer keen to come home, limiting cross fertilisation of ideas and skills. It is no wonder that Nigerians spend billions of dollars on medical tourism every year even on something as basic as a medical check-up. But worse hit is the attitude of an average doctor towards his profession. I once went to a wing in a teaching hospital in Lagos and was impressed by the transformation that had taken place. Unfortunately, the transformation did not reach the hospital personnel. It was like putting old wine into a new wine skin. There was this slow, slovenly attitude among the nurses and doctors. They were polite, but unhurried and seemingly unconcerned about the pain and discomfort around them. You compare that with the brisk and professional attitude of even an average hospital abroad and you realise that the hood does not a monk make.
Yet, in spite of all this, Nigerian doctors are among the most pampered. They literarily and often get away with murder. A nephew was operated upon at a teaching hospital where a wrong screw was used on his hip bone. He was finally sent to the US at a huge cost to the family after six months of excruciating pain. He walks with a very noticeable limb today. And the doctor who did the surgery is still let loose to perform ‘wonders’ on hapless victims. A friend’s sister was diagnosed with an advanced form of breast cancer and immediate surgery was recommended. A lone but influential voice called for a second opinion. A hospital in the UK took a look at the X-ray and said she could not possibly be on her feet if the X-ray had belonged to her. She was lucky she could afford a second opinion. How many people have died due to wrong diagnosis, wrong drugs and on the operating table? An uncle developed a Parkinson disorder due to wrong drugs. A friend’s aged mother died because the prescribed drugs were either too strong for the ailment or her body. All he got by way of compensation was an apology. In Nigeria, doctors bury their mistakes. Or worse, relatives bury the mistakes of doctors without as much as a protest. Accident cases and emergency ailments that many would see as 50-50 are almost fatal here. A friend just survived such a ‘touch and go’ situation in the US after six months of slipping in and out of operating theatres. There is a thanksgiving rather than a funeral service for him in Ondo this weekend.
So why go on if nothing but
retrogression has been achieved after four decades of incessant strikes. Why would an otherwise brainy class of people continue on a beaten path that has not advanced its cause? The answer seems simple to me; it is an easy option and it massages the ego especially seeing how panicky it makes everybody. It also looks like a win-win situation. You take time off to rest and attend to your private practice. And you still get paid for your time off. I agree that it offends the senses when you see how well remunerated our politicians, many of whom could not carry your books in school are. It makes you indignant when you see our propensity as a nation towards mediocrity. But these are base instincts as elevated minds should not be motivated by money and comfort alone, and many of life-changing achievements have been made during periods of adversity. Success is about intangible things like making a place better than you met it. Doctors with their Hippocratic oaths should understand that more than many. Strikes by the medical profession not only wastes lives; they waste a nation. And they have so far not advanced the cause of the profession.
Doctors as a group have well above average intelligence and thus capable of figuring out a plan B. They need to look inwards and deliberate on how to elevate their profession to serve and not to decimate the nation. Our political leaders must also realise that the medical profession is a well- respected and well remunerated profession anywhere in the world and must be so treated here.
But while a decent and mutually acceptable negotiation is going on, a ground rule must be established; no professional body or trade union should be paid for the period they are on strike. It is ethically and morally indefensible to be paid for work not done. It is even worse in the case of doctors where lives that have been lost due to strikes can never be brought back.