Stop harassing doctors and give rulers a dose of their own medicine

Stop harassing doctors and give rulers a dose of their own medicine

Two months after Kenyan doctors in public hospitals began their strike, it was a day of national shame when the government finally showed its resolve to use strong-arm tactics by sending their union officials to jail for a month.

Indeed, the confrontation with the doctors has all along shown the Kenya government to be insincere. It engaged in a host of intimidation tactics, including using the courts to try and break the strike without meeting the demands by doctors.

Supporters of the action taken against doctors have opined that the courts must be respected and obeyed by all. While that is hypothetically true, obedience to conscience and fidelity to the truth rank higher than obedience to any court of law. In the case of Kenya – as with many other African countries – the courts are used to selectively punish those who offend the people in power.

In the past few years, numerous senior public officials have ignored court orders at whim, with no consequences whatsoever. Why then, one wonders, is the Kenyan judiciary keen to stamp its authority in this case when it has ignored doing so where senior government officials are concerned? To regain credibility, why not give a few leaders a taste of prison, too?

The precedent being set is that the courts will be used to infringe on the rights of workers and other special-interest groups. Rather than set the ground for mediation and fair resolution of disputes, the courts will be openly seen as siding with oppressors. This has enormous implications on the image and credibility of the judiciary in the eyes of the public. This being an election year, the eroding of public confidence in the judiciary could have serious unintended consequences and lead to violence.

Not only was jailing the doctors a risky move in an election year, this ill-conceived move has also diminished all hopes of reviving the health sector in Kenya. As their leaders languish in jail, it is certain that doctors will not resume duty. The government’s intimidation has only worsened an already bad situation, with deaths being reported across the country as patients fail to access services. Fortunately for the country’s leaders, they can refuse to dialogue and fly out to South Africa and Western countries for treatment.

Yet the issues that the country’s doctors were articulating go beyond Kenya’s borders and are faced by other countries around the region. This is a matter, therefore, where the entire region should begin putting heads together if we are to fully address the health challenges of present and future generations.

Taking Kenya’s example, the country has a doctor to patient ratio of about 1:17,000, a far cry from the World Health Organisation recommended ratio of one doctor for every 1,000 people. Overall, the country’s public sector employs about 4,000 doctors, who are poorly paid and work in dilapidated and poorly-equipped hospitals. On that score, there may not be much of a difference between Kenya and Tanzania, Uganda or even Burundi.

But while the government claims it has no money to pay doctors decent salaries, political leaders have been laughing all the way to the bank. Members of Parliament regularly award themselves hefty increases in salaries and allowances. Lower down the ladder, Members of County Assemblies, who with the enactment of the country’s new constitution replaced the previous councillors, are also paid extremely well. A few public officials fall into this category as well, including judges and senior officials of state corporations.

Moreover, Kenya’s salary differentials between senior and junior cadres are among the highest in the world, encouraging inequality and a growing chasm between the haves and have-nots. This indecent difference is made worse by grand corruption, which has reached exponential levels under President Uhuru Kenyatta’s leadership.

While hundreds of millions of dollars of public funds is lost in dubious deals and projects, the government claims it has no money to pay doctors, lecturers and other cadres better salaries. Of course, hardly anybody takes government pronouncements on such matters with much seriousness any longer, even in Jubilee strongholds. In fact, it is a foregone conclusion that unless the opposition fumbles and fails to unite, Uhuru Kenyatta will be Kenya’s first one-term president.

East Africa needs to come up with a framework to address such issues in member states. Integration cannot be enhanced when key sectors in member states are brought to a grinding halt due to the sheer incompetence of national leaders. Harmonisation of key sectors will remain a pipedream if the region does not learn from the spate of labour strikes in Kenya and take appropriate action.

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