Health Workers, Why Not Give Bernice a Chance?

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There has been a lot of bad blood between the administration of the Health Ministry and the National Health Workers Association of Liberia (NAHWAL).  The feud started sometime ago when the NAHWAL president, Joseph Tamba, and secretary general, George Williams, tried to begin a conversation with Health Minister Walter Gwenigale over matters of remuneration.  

Things quickly turned sour when the Minister fired the two NAHWAL leaders and vowed “never” to take them back.  Gwenigale may not have realized the extreme nature of the word “never” and its divisive potency.  He repeated it several times, driving a deeper divide between the Ministry and NAHWAL.

The Deputy Minister and Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Bernice Dahn, was keenly watching everything.  We think the bad blood between the two sides entered Dr. Dahn’s veins when, in NAHWAL’s perception, she did nothing to persuade her boss to change his mind. 

Whether or not Dr. Dahn tried is something she will one day reveal, either in the near future—probably before the Liberian Senate during confirmation hearings—or  much later on in her memoirs.

But one could see already, the minute the President named Bernice as Dr. Gwenigale’s successor, that she immediately threw an olive branch to the health workers.  She told them that   she would do her best to incorporate all health workers into the government payroll.   After she made that announcement during a meeting, the entire audience jumped to their feet and gave Bernice a standing ovation!  Everyone saw that as a positive development and a brave attempt by Bernice to begin a new dialogue with the Health workers and their leaders toward bridging the wide gap between them and the health authorities.

The whole nation, then, wonders what led the health workers, barely a week later, to launch such a vicious attack on Dr. Dahn, even to the extent of attempting to dictate to the Liberian Senate NOT to confirm her as the new Health Minister.

What went wrong so soon?  Why did they tell the Senate that the Chief Medical Officer had led the healthcare sector to what they called “total collapse” and that she had failed to “diagnose the   employment of the healthcare workers as a problem?” 

The world knows that Liberia’s healthcare delivery system was woefully inadequate, just as those in the other two nations, Guinea and Sierra Leone, hardest hit by the Ebola crisis.  Do the health workers truly blame Dr. Dahn for that?  What about the money the health authorities had asked for over the years to fix the system that was not forthcoming? 

Remember how, during his first few years as Health Minister, Dr. Gwenigale requested money to revive Phebe Hospital which had been badly hit by the war.  It is an institution he, as a young surgeon, had saved from collapse in the early 1970s, and run successfully for 35 years, even during the war. 

But what happened? 

Some legislators from the very Bong County where Phebe is located demanded a cut in whatever funding Phebe was to get!  Because this straightforward man of integrity, Sanoyea-born Walter Gwenigale, refused, the lawmakers CUT the hospital’s budget, leaving Phebe which was caring for these lawmakers’ own people, paralyzed. 

Do the NAHWL leaders know what they are doing by blaming this woman for all the health sector’s problems? 

Remember it was during CMO Dahn’s administration that Liberia’s infant and maternal mortality rate dropped substantially.  It was under her watch, too, that fistula, the terrible and embarrassing woman’s sickness, was reduced by 99%.  Even the fistula conditions of women from Guinea, La Cote d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone were surgically fixed in Liberia.   

The health workers definitely have problems that need to and must be addressed, lest the healthcare system be further compromised.  But we plead with them to sit and reason with the Minister-designate.

We further call on Dr. Dahn, before her confirmation hearings, to invite the health workers for a conversation and promise them that she will do what she had already said she would do—to resolve their most essential grievances.

One last caution to the health workers: “Better the devil you know than the angel you don’t know” – sometimes.   

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