It’s in the nation’s interest that the dispute is resolved immediately

Barely 48 hours after President Muhammadu Buhari left for the United Kingdom on ‘routine medical checkup’, the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) began another indefinite strike to press home their demand for better welfare. Already, patients requiring healthcare in most government hospitals across the country are either being turned back or are left unattended to with all the dire implications. Many who may require emergency services and without enough funds to seek healthcare in private hospitals could unfortunately lose their lives. This frequent face-off between health workers and government at all levels has not only left an indelible stain on the image of the public health care system, it has also brought untold hardship to many Nigerians.

The demands of the doctors are quite legitimate. They include review of the current hazard allowance to 50 per cent of consolidated basic salaries of all health workers and payment of the outstanding COVID-19 allowance especially in state-owned tertiary institutions. They also seek immediate payment of salary arrears for their members in all federal and state tertiary health institutions across the country especially ASUTH, IMSUTH and UNIMEDTH, according to NARD President, Uyilawa Okhuaihesuyi. In addition, the doctors are seeking the payment of the outstanding COVID-19 inducement allowance especially in state-owned tertiary institutions besides the payment of death-in-service insurance for all health workers “who died because of COVID-19 infection or other infectious diseases in the country.”

We fully support the aspirations of resident doctors in terms of their welfare, conducive working environment, training and recognition of their contributions as sacrosanct to an efficient healthcare system. Lack of continuity of dialogue and diligent oversight by relevant stakeholders in government have over the years contributed to this perennial unfortunate challenge. If government realises after signing agreements that it lacks either financial wherewithal or that existing instruments do not support proposed actions, officials ought to reconvene the parties for another round of talks. That they never do this is why the problem persists.

However, we are of the view that a strike will not resolve the list of problems confronting Nigeria’s healthcare system at the moment. As previous cases have proven, parties would still return to the negotiating table after several lives have been lost. We therefore plead with the resident doctors to return to work. A more strategic way to resolve this logjam can be attained without bringing untold hardship to patients and other citizens that may need their services in the hospitals. A new mechanism for dispute resolution platform should be explored.

The federal government must understand that this is not an auspicious moment to dither on the issue of healthcare for the people. It is not lost on Nigerians that their president is seeking solution abroad for his own medical challenge at a time they are practically left to their own devices. So, it is important that there be a quick resolution. Meanwhile, time has also come for the federal government to overhaul its collective bargaining machinery with a view to ensuring effective implementation of agreements it freely enters into. Incessant strikes are hugely inimical to the health of the economy and, in many ways, disruptive of the social order.

Beyond addressing the current challenge with NARD, the federal government needs to urgently improve the quality of lives of healthcare professionals by making deliberate efforts in that direction. This will not only help to reduce brain drain and medical tourism—two ‘monsters’ that should easily be blamed on insensitivity of government—but also help in the bid to revamp the health sector in the country.