Speaking at a hastily-convened press conference last Thursday night, Dr Ruth Aceng, the minister for Health, issued a strong ultimatum to striking medical workers: Return to work or get sacked.
For the medical interns who she claimed were misled into joining an illegal strike, she directed them to resume duty immediately or forfeit their internship.
Aceng’s threats represented a determined and desperate effort by government to quickly end a damaging strike without considering the dire consequences to patients.
Yes, doctors may eventually cave in to intimidation and return to work without a pay raise or an improvement in their working conditions but, without doubt, they may not so easily be cowed into working efficiently and passionately on patients.
Threats cannot be a solution but are simply a negative persuasion tool. Interviewed by The Observer last week, Dr Okwaro Obuku, the president of the Uganda Medical Association, which has led the strike since November 6, rightly said that the strike was more than just an agitation for a pay rise.
Public hospitals lack the very basics: medicines and equipment for doctors to use in the course of their work. For example, how does government expect a doctor to operate on a patient when there is no blood?
Faced with such adversities, many health workers, Dr Obuku said, had resorted to what he referred to as defensive medicine. An expectant mother is brought at a hospital, a doctor looks at her and signs in a book: “I saw this patient at this time, but there is no blood.”
That said, threats will only push the strike underground. Government should meet the medical workers half-way.
Already, they have offered to hold off their demand for a pay raise until the salary review commission harmonises the pay structure of all civil servants.
They have, however, asked for three key things: the disbandment of the Health Monitoring Unit, an end to the perennial problems facing interns and the payment of various duty allowances.
One or two of these conditions can be met. A little positive persuasion will do the trick, but not empty promises and threats.