Kenya’s Health Workers, Unprotected and Falling Ill, Walk Off Job

NAIROBI, Kenya — Doctors in public hospitals say they have not been paid, some for as long as six months. They’re furious that they’ve been given faulty protective gear, or none at all. Hundreds of government health workers have fallen sick with the coronavirus, and yet many say their medical insurance was cut in July, just when hospitals became overwhelmed with cases.

The situation in Kenya’s public hospitals is so dire that thousands of doctors, nurses and laboratory technicians in at least three counties walked off the job this month. On Friday, they were joined by more than 300 doctors working in 20 public facilities in Nairobi, the country’s capital, and thousands more across the country are threatening to strike in September if their demands are not met.

The crisis comes as infections are surging, particularly in cities like Nairobi, and intensive care units in hospitals are filling up with coronavirus patients. The pandemic is now straining medical workers to the breaking point in a country known for having one of the better health care systems in Africa, experts say.

“Doctors are not martyrs,” Thuranira Kaugiria, secretary-general of the Nairobi branch of the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union, said in an interview — a line he has since adopted as a hashtag. “Doctors are not children of a lesser God.”

Frustration among health workers peaked after a recent television exposé accused dozens of business leaders and government officials of corruption, alleging that they stole about $400 million in funds allocated to fight the pandemic. The country’s health minister, Mutahi Kagwe, told Parliament the allegations were “just fiction” but later, on Facebook, he promised changes. Some officials have been suspended. Authorities say they are investigating the alleged theft of pandemic-related donations from Chinese billionaire Jack Ma.

Protesters gathered in Nairobi on Friday, calling for those accused to be brought to justice.

While Kenya was able to stem the spread of the virus by locking down early on, health officials have reported 31,763 cases and 532 deaths — a tally experts believe is low because of inadequate testing.

Doctors are demanding quality protective gear, comprehensive medical insurance, salaries paid on time, promotions and compensation packages and exemptions from duty for doctors who are pregnant or who have pre-existing conditions. Union officials have also urged the government to hire 1,000 unemployed doctors to bridge shortages.

Past doctors’ strikes have lasted for months, and this one is open-ended.

Kenya’s Health Ministry did not respond to requests for an interview. But Mercy Mwangangi, chief administrative secretary for the ministry, said in a news conference on Friday that counties have been improving hospital conditions and protective gear, and that the ministry is negotiating with the health workers.

With almost 48 million people, Kenya only has 9,068 licensed medical doctors, according to the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Council. The country has 537 intensive care unit beds, but only 256 ventilators, a recent study showed.

“Kenya’s health care system has always been one major disaster away from collapsing,” said Dr. Stellah Bosire, co-executive director of the East Africa Sexual Health and Rights Initiative.

Covid-19 has so far infected 700 health workers and killed more than 10, according to the doctor’s union. These include at least 41 positive cases among workers at Kenya’s largest maternity hospital, Pumwani.

Union officials said a public health officer in the northeastern county of Wajir died because he could not get to a facility equipped with oxygen. A nurse in the western county of Homa Bay died of Covid-19 complications days after giving birth.

“There’s a false sense of protection,” he said.

The crippling effects of the walkout are apparent in Homa Bay county, where for 18 days now, 64 doctors and more than 4,000 health workers have been on strike, said Dr. Kevin Osuri Jr., a union official who works at Rangwe Sub-District Hospital, a public facility.

The coronavirus isolation centers in the county have been “abandoned,” he said, and patients who test positive are being sent home. The government has yet to call for a meeting with the doctors, Dr. Osuri said.

Kenya’s government was initially lauded for initiating mitigation efforts to curb the virus. But health officials say coordination between the national government and counties isn’t effective, with smaller hospitals left to fend for themselves.

“The ministry of health is like a mother that cut its cord with the counties,” said Dr. Rowena Njeri, a medical superintendent at a hospital in Murang’a County, north of Nairobi.

Dr. Njeri said authorities in Nairobi sent her permeable coveralls, which she only discovered while training health workers on how to use them.

“I felt fear for our health workers,” said Dr. Njeri, who manages 17 health centers and dispensaries with only two regularly-assigned doctors. “There was a sense of doom and uncertainty.”

Kenyan doctors recently launched a campaign to commemorate the life of Dr. Doreen Adisa Lugaliki, the first Kenyan doctor to die of Covid-19.

Dr. Yubrine Moraa Gachemba, an internist and health advocate, said that even though she works at Nairobi Hospital, one of Kenya’s top private hospitals, all doctors are afraid.

“The army that’s fighting the pandemic in Kenya is currently demoralized,” said Dr. Gachemba.

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