In less than 90 days, medical workers plan to strike in defiance at government’s failure to improve their working environment and lapses in investment in the proper management of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In an August 6th letter to the Minister of Public Service, Wilson Muruli Mukasa, health workers united under the Uganda Medical Association (U.M.A) say 21 months have gone by since government cajoled them into suspending their industrial strike in 2017 with a promise to improve their working condition.
“U.M.A has over the past 21 months written letters, met with and engaged the relevant government ministries, departments and agencies to discuss these critical health systems gaps including human capital development and other emerging issues and especially the challenges visited upon us by COVID 19 with little success.”
“In fact U.M.A met His Excellency the President at State House Entebbe on June 1 2021 who reiterated specific directives to urgently attend to these health systems gaps given the prevailing COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed lives of over 2,700 Ugandans including over 50 health workers who died in the line of duty of providing care to the sick.”
According to the doctors, the specific health system issues include; recurrent shortage of medical supplies, technologies and vaccines.
“Indeed U.M.A welcomes government’s increased investment in physical infrastructure, equipment, ambulances, transport means, medicines and blood transfusion services even before the COVID-19 pandemic,” the letter partly reads.
“Also UMA further appreciates that despite the shortage of COVID-19 vaccines globally, Uganda’s health workforce was prioritized for vaccination.”
“Specific to this notice, the sheer deficit of investment in COVID-19 case management and infection, prevention and control became obvious with rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in the current second wave. Yet since 2017, we the doctors of Uganda have raised an alarm over critical medical care gaps and again reiterated the same during the first wave of COVID-19 in 2020 such as lack of oxygen at facilities that saw Ugandans die in despair when oxygen cylinders were dry and installed plants operated at below demand capacity.”
“Lack of functional High Dependency Units (HDU) and Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds (bed, oxygen, ventilator, monitor, critical care medics), that left Ugandans in desperation and catastrophic expenditures in the private hospitals…”
“Lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for the majority of frontline medical professionals (nurses, clinical officers, doctors inter alia) especially in the non-specified COVID-19 treatment units such as out-patients departments that has put the doctors’ lives at risk as well as lack of medicines and other supplies for continuation of care for none COVID-19 conditions.”
According to health workers, “The result of this neglect by government was an over 2,000 deaths of Ugandans in this second wave alone, including frontline health workers that could have been avoided if health investments funding prioritized these services.”
“Another specific health system issue addressed by U.M.A is the perennial poor working conditions despite repeated diplomatic protests. There has been hardly any improvement in this aspect since the 2017 agreement between U.M.A and the government and health workers are forced to risk their lives to attend to Ugandans under dangerous working conditions contrary to the Occupational Safety and Health Act 2006.”
“…these poor conditions manifested as failure to protect, provide care for and compensate health workers who have been infected by, maimed or died from COVID 19 while at work where over 3,000 health workers have so far contracted COVID-19 and over 50 died and some of those who survived have suffered long term disability affecting their work or unable to work.”
“To date, none of these medical professionals who died from COVID-19 has been compensated. Their families and dependents are suffering from hunger and some have been threatened with eviction from government houses. The majority of those who got infected or died had been working in places such as the Out Patients Clinics, which often lacked PPE and where patients whose COVID 19 infection status is unknown during initial assessment,” U.M.A said in a letter.
Doctors have therefore made seven demands they addressed within 90 days, which started on August 6. These include passing a supplementary budget for sufficient medical supplies, and medical technologies necessary for the optimal working conditions of all medical cadres, including but not limited to PPEs, Oxygen, Oxygen cylinders, and fully functional ICU beds.
The doctors also want compensation for all the 50 plus health workers who have died in line of duty and those among the 3,000 plus who were infected and survived and paying COVID 19 risk allowances without taxation to all frontline healthcare professionals among others.
Interviewed for this story, Dr Richard Idro, the President of Uganda Medical Association (U.M.A) said government is trying to addressing some issues. He said the president has directed the Ministry of Finance to assist doctors running private medical facilities get loans from Uganda Development Bank.
He said the president has ordered a pay raise for medical interns who include medical doctors, dental surgeons, pharmacists, graduate nurses and midwives.
The Secretary General of U.M.A Dr Mukuzi Muheereza said, “We are still very firm on undertaking the industrial strike
if the government fails to address all our grievances within these 90 days because the interventions made so far are only a drop in the ocean,” Muheereza said.