THE Nigerian Medical Association called out its members on yet another strike about two weeks ago. The NMA is, no doubt, one of the most strike-prone associations in the country.
Even though members of the NMA are among the most elitist professional groups in the country, anyone unfamiliar with them would be excused to think they are a group of wage-earning blue collar jobbers given the frequency of strike by its members. Generally the medical sector of Nigeria is crisis-prone.
Now it is the NMA that called out its members, on other occasions it would be the resident doctors that would be raining brimstone on Nigerians. Anyhow you want to look at it Nigerian doctors under whatever professional umbrella or association have been pulling their weight in manners not many Nigerians would appreciate.
One doesn’t need to conduct a survey to know that medical professionals, especially medical doctors, were historically among the most admired Nigerians. That fond image of medical doctors as benign, easy-going people has no doubt undergone serious transformation in the last one and half decades.
The Nigerian doctor is no more that friendly looking, accommodating, even avuncular professional. Today’s doctor must be that shabbily-dressed, gaunt-looking individual you are likely to meet in a small, dinghy room in a public or private health facility that is ready to turn you away at the slightest opportunity where they are not actively seeking your death with their wrong prognosis or in fact forgetting some sharp object inside your body after butchering you in the name of conducting a medical surgery.
Their eyes are forever now trained on how much they can make the patient part with while not being too bothered with their wellbeing. Even those in public institutions insist on some form of payment first before attending to people in need of emergency attention.
Their Hippocratic Oath doesn’t seem to amount to much in the face of their drive for immediate material or monetary gain. This is the image, one drawn by the crisis of the medical sector, which many Nigerians have of medical doctors today. Theirs is a sector that has been left prostrate by diverse kinds of unprofessional conduct, including seemingly unending strikes and trade disputes.
Thus, to hear of another doctors’ strike is to leave Nigerians with loved ones, patients, in our poorly-resourced medical facilities apprehensive. The consequences of such strikes are often dire and irreversible. A doctors’ strike unlike strikes by other sector workers is often a death sentence.
This leaves many baffled why doctors so often resort to the strike option where there are less severe avenues for expression of professional grievances. The strike is certainly the best option open to doctors in the sense that it is the most effective to make our usually unresponsive government see the need to talk with and accede to their demands. These demands are in fact often based on agreements reached with but not honoured by government. Which means the doctors many times have justice on their side when they fight the authorities.
But frequent strikes cannot be the best way for conflict resolution in their case. Although the most effective tool of engaging government attention is the strike option, it is also the worst that doctors could possibly employ from a public relations perspective. Its consequences are often irreversible not withstanding the grounds for it.
In fact, many of the reasons for the NMA strikes like the reasons the Academic Staff Union of Universities go on strike are not only similar but also well known. High up on the list of grievances is the extremely deplorable condition of public medical facilities, the near-total neglect of the medical sector where just about five per cent of the country’s annual budget is deployed and most of it for recurrent expenditure.
These facts are too clear to be disputed or denied. Yet our governments down the years manage to ignore them. What they want the public to see is that aspect of the doctors’ demands having to do with remuneration and social regard that portray them as unreasonable and greedy.
With the ongoing strike, the picture that comes through is that doctors want more pay and want to be the first and last in hospitals. Other professionals can’t head medical institutions or bear titles like consultants. But the fact is more complex than this.
The problem is that government officials have politicised matters in the health sector where non-medical officials are deliberately pitched against medical doctors. Doctors should not and cannot monopolise control of hospitals but as a group they are the fulcrum of activities in the hospitals and should enjoy the best in terms of remuneration and other rewards given their years of training, etc.
To make them answerable to people with lesser training or professional qualifications or in fact put them in position where their authority as experts is questioned by non-experts appointed as heads of departments or units under whatever titles is totally wrong. Yet government officials do things like these just to spite them or deflect from the attention they enjoy.
There is nothing wrong where other professionals are rewarded along their own sector and in line with the demands of their jobs. But to insist on extending to them certain incentives simply because doctors enjoy these is an invitation to anarchy.
It is the same divide-and-conquer tactics government officials employ with ASUU where members of non-academic senior staff associations and their junior counterparts in universities insist on similar incentives and rewards accruing to academic staff even when the professional qualifications, years of training, requirements for promotion, etc, are different.
Like in medical facilities where doctors are the central figures, activities in universities revolve around academic staff and their students, not the ancillary non-academic staff who are essentially support staff. But the reality in the public universities now is that the non-academic staff have relatively better conditions of service, allowances and other incentives than far better trained academic staff.
They are put in positions where they countermand orders and question claims of better trained academics even in academic matters!
Members of these associations often embark on copycat strikes after academic staff associations whose industrial blueprints are cloned and used as the basis of their own (non-academic staff) negotiation with government. The same government without regard to agreements reached with academic staff after years of negotiation would go ahead and approve these claims by the non-academic staff. All of these including politicized appointments into positions make non academic staff overrate their relevance in the universities. Although ASUU led a six months strike but many non-academic elements in the universities have a lot more to show as gains from that strike than members of ASUU. Unwholesome situations like these are clearly responsible for past and present doctors’ strike.
By Rotimi Fasan
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