Just where in the world are health workers recruited off the streets to fill vacuums created by striking health workers? In other parts of the world, Africa included, one usually hears of governments sending military doctors and related personnel, at least temporarily, as stop-gap measures to alleviate the situation created by striking health workers.
In Liberia, President Weah’s response to striking health workers was to order the Minister of Health to replace them with new recruits. This includes doctors, nurses, physician assistants, laboratory technicians, x-ray and dental health workers, nurses aides, etc. But for heavens sake, the Minister of Health is fully aware that it is impossible at this given moment in time to find adequately trained and qualified manpower to replace striking health workers.
For a government struggling to meet basic payrolls including that of striking health workers, just where is the money going to come from to pay newly recruited health workers assuming that there was ready availability of trained health workers. The Liberia Medical and Dental Council (LMDC) has since made meaningful proposals — a win-win package so to speak — which has been outrightly rejected by Health authorities.
The striking workers have, for instance, singled out GoL’s non-payment of hazardous duty allowances and the non-provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) to frontline workers. And they are fully aware of donor contributions to assist health workers in this regard; besides they appear to have a gut feeling that health authorities or other higher-ups have simply eaten the money.
It can be recalled that the Daily Observer, commenting on developments in its editorial dated June 18, 2020 observed that at least 13.7 percent of all of Liberia’s confirmed COVID-19 cases were health workers. This meant that these workers were most at risk owing to their exposure to infected individuals at the various health centers around the country.
Unlike the Ebola outbreak where health professionals were placed firmly in charge of the response effort, the COVID-19 response effort was placed in the charge of non-health professionals and the disastrous effects were soon felt. In short, the official response of the Liberian government to the COVID-19 outbreak has been haphazard to say the least and has been blighted by corruption involving top officials of government including possibly the involvement of health authorities.
Also during the 2014 Ebola response effort, health workers were provided with Protective Personal Equipment (PPEs) and were provided financial incentives (hazardous duty pay) for their exposure to hazardous life-threatening conditions. While donor support was provided to cater to health workers as part of the anti-COVID-19 response effort, the money did not trickle down to the deserving recipients. Instead the money found its way into private pockets and, lest we fool ourselves, health workers are fully aware that government officials have eaten the money.
But part of the blame also lies with the International Monetary Fund which has recommended the imposition of stringent austerity policies that emphasize deep cuts in social spending especially deep cuts in the country’s health and education budgets. The effect of these policies as well as runaway public sector corruption are having a devastating impact on the lives of ordinary Liberians. Liberians seem to resent this and this can partly explain reasons for the protest vote against the CDC candidate that brought opposition politician Darius Dillon to the Senate.
One classic example of the IMF’s recommendations to cut public sector wage bills is the compulsory retirement of health workers whose replacement the Government of Liberia is unable to provide. This decision to lay off health workers is coming at a time when the health sector is facing critical shortage of nearly everything ranging from adequately trained and qualified doctors, nurses and allied personnel and essential drugs, medicines and medical supplies.
The John F. Kennedy Hospital, the nation’s largest referral hospital has for all intent and purpose, been transformed from a public health facility to a private health facility where access to medical services is based on ability to pay the very high fees charged.
But the health workers are not alone as other public sector employees are also making similar demands. Employees from the Legislature as well as from the Judiciary have all threatened strike or go-slow action in demand of unpaid wages and better conditions of service. What officials of this government fail to realize is that the big stick approach used by former President Sirleaf when she ordered the dismissal of the leaders of striking health workers who former Health Minister Walter Gwenigale swore never to reinstate.
But that was then and what President Sirleaf was able to get away with, this government may very well be unable to get away with same. Conditions have since changed and may never again be the same. The protest action by health workers could not have come at a worse time for a government fighting tooth and nail to salvage prospects for victory at the December polls and as well rebrand its fledging quest for a second-term quest.
Health authorities response to the striking workers has been very callous and, rather than helping to defuse the situation, it is inflaming passions and worsening an already bad situation. Health workers are being told that government does not have money to address their concerns, yet they are seeing officials of this government spending loads of cash (newly printed Liberian dollar banknotes) on buying and trucking voters. First Lady Clar Weah and Presidential Protocol officer, Finda Bundoo have been seen recently at the Kendeja Elementary school VR center, distributing wads of cash to prospective voters.
The GoL, particularly President Weah, should listen to the concerns of the Liberia Medical and Dental Council (LMDC). Threatening to replace striking health workers and retiring medical doctors at age 65 is a very short-sighted policy, given the very critical shortage of trained medical personnel. He should not lose sight of the likelihood that the health workers strike, if not handled with care, could snowball into wider strike action involving other sectors that could paralyze the economy and place the future of this government in jeopardy.