Kenya should take better care of its doctors and nurses

Kenya's healthcare workers go on strike, demanding better wages, adequate insurance and personal protective gear, as more doctors die on the frontline.

Opinion by

A 28-year-old doctor died in Kenya of the coronavirus on Monday after having gone without a salary for five months. 

He left almost $13,500 in unpaid medical bills to his five-month-old baby and recent wife, as he did not have medical insurance. 

Dr Stephen Mogusu caught the deadly virus while working in Machakos County, about an hour’s drive from Kenya’s capital, but had to be transferred to the capital city Nairobi where there were available beds. The eastern county had already met its quota of 300 beds per county for Covid-19 cases.

His sister believes that if her brother had access to personal protective equipment (PPE) he would still be alive.

The young doctor’s death has sparked outrage in Kenya as angry citizens accuse the government of failing to protect the men and women who are fighting Covid-19 on the frontline.

Around 23,000 nurses and healthcare workers began a nationwide strike on Monday demanding that the government pays better wages, provides adequate insurance and expands the distribution of PPEs. 

There have since been reports that patients in a number of hospitals have gone without the healthcare they need. 

Doctors had also threatened to strike, though the industrial action was delayed at the last minute to give parliament time to discuss and address the issue.

Protesters are demanding that the government makes around $4.5m available for insurance to fill the gaps in the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF), a public insurance scheme that aims to provide affordable healthcare. 

Most medical insurance in Kenya is private and extremely expensive. Less than 20% of individual Kenyans reported having some form of insurance coverage, while 89% of those insured were covered under the state health insurance scheme, the NHIF, according to the Ministry of Health.

They have also called for personal protective equipment (PPEs) to be distributed to all public health institutions and for patients not to be charged for the life-saving gear.

So far, the government has refused to budge.

Opposition figure Raila Odinga condemned the strike saying “this is not the time to hold the government to ransom” and used the dampened economy – which has seen a 1% contraction in GDP growth – as a measure of the crisis. 

However, Kenya is by no means a poor country.

Certainly, there are pockets of extreme poverty but the government and its politicians are extraordinarily wealthy.

Most lawmakers get paid more in Kenya than their counterparts in other more developed countries.

Kenya’s open market, diverse economy and position as the gateway to East Africa has led to decades of steady growth.

Providing basic care for those who are risking their lives fighting the pandemic should be a no-brainer. 

Kenya’s government has officially increased the budget allocation to the health sector by 10.3% during the pandemic, but many of those on strike say the extra money has been siphoned off to corruption.

Around $24.2m (KES2.7bn) is also earmarked for Kenya’s emergency response, for testing and treatment, according to Development Initiatives research. But there is still a $854m budget shortfall to deal with the pandemic. 

Many Kenyans look at the extraordinary sums of money that have already been injected into Kenya by donors and multilateral institutions during Covid-19 and wonder where all the cash has gone.

The IMF pumped $739m of pandemic-related funds into Kenya at the start of the crisis; there are talks for another $2.3bn on the way and between $1bn and $1.5bn from the World Bank.

Where is this money going if not to support Kenya’s healthcare workers?

A vigil was held for Dr Mogusu on Wednesday as his colleagues, friends and family grieved for his needless death.

The ailing doctor’s last words according to a colleague were “bail out when you can because the mistreatment by the government is not worth your life.”

Tom Collins is East Africa correspondent at African Business Magazine, based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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