As the paralyzing strike called by medical doctors enters its second week, their leader, Dr Ekwaro Obuku, has rebuked the government for resorting to threats instead of pursuing constructive talks.
Speaking on the Capital Gang, a Saturday morning political radio talk show on Capital FM, Obuku said they will not be returning to work until their issues are attended to -- despite a Thursday night ultimatum issued by the government, through minister of Health Jane Ruth Aceng, for doctors to resume work or face the sack.
Aceng, herself a medical doctor, has declared the Uganda Medical Association (UMA) headed by Obuku not legally mandated to negotiate for medical workers.
On Saturday, she refused to reveal her next course of action. She told The Observer in an interview: “Wait and see what I will do. I don’t want to tell you my secret and you release it in the papers.”
During a hastily arranged press conference on Thursday night, Aceng denounced the industrial action as illegal and ordered the doctors to return to work or face disciplinary action.
“…The involvement of UMA in influencing the public service activities by calling on doctors to strike is illegal and should cease henceforth and the perpetrators should be treated as trespassers,” Aceng said.
The minister has largely been ignored. Her threat of disciplinary action against the striking doctors seems to have instead strengthened their resolve.
Aceng said while the health workers’ demands are genuine, they must exercise their rights with restraint and patience to allow government handle their issues in a phased manner.
But Obuku called out the minister.
“We were about to agree with the office of the prime minister,” he said “but then the ministry of health [has] poured cold water on the deal. Threatening will not work. We call upon the government to end the strike because it is the chief organiser of strikes by not meeting the demands of health workers.”
Obuku said medics will not accept government’s well-rehearsed excuse of having no money to meet their demands. He said the politicians should stop hoodwinking the public that there are no resources to effect a pay rise for doctors.
“I want parliamentarians to jump over tables and throw chairs in order to pass the health budget when it is around 15 percent. Doctors have decided to conduct this industrial action because life was being lost excessively [because of poor working conditions] and we are saying that as vanguards of the health sector, we should be the first ones to stand up because we have also lost doctors to preventable diseases,” Obuku said.
Instead of resident district commissioners and the controversial State House health monitoring unit (HMU) wasting money spying on doctors, Obuku said, government should be looking for a peaceful resolution to the impasse.
Speaking on the same show, Sister Florence Abati Abalo, a nursing officer working with HMU, said the doctors’ timing of the strike was bad, especially before they exhausted all channels of dialogue.
“Nurses constitute 65 percent of the health workers. We hoped that if the doctors sat down together with us and discussed a way forward of how to organise this strike, we would have agreed to hold it. The president is willing to listen to them; the strike of health workers means life and lives have already been lost,” Abalo said.
She also added that doctors knew what they were signing up to when they accepted to work with government. However, panelist Abdul Katuntu (MP for Bugweri) said doctors have every right to withdraw their labour when they feel their working conditions are not favorable.
He said Uganda’s biggest problem is the duplication of roles where ministry work is done by units within State House.
“The president is running a double government. You create another structure, you put in too much money which should go to the ministry of health,” Katuntu said.
Last week, the doctors said they can return to work as negotiations on their demands continue if three key conditions were met.
These are the disbandment of a State House anti-corruption operation directed against their fraternity, sorting out the perennial problems facing medical interns, and the payment of various duty allowances.
Dr Obuku told The Observer in an interview last week that health workers have been humiliated by HMU whose work methods he described as draconian.
The doctor-to-patient ratio in Uganda is among the worst in the world with 32,000 patients for every available doctor.
“The Ugandan doctor is not valued by [his/her] government; that’s why many are running to other African countries for greener pastures,” Obuku told this newspaper.
“We are spending much more money in private health insurance schemes for State House, cabinet, statutory authorities,” Obuku said.
In their demand, the doctors want the salary of an entry-level doctor to be increased from Shs 1.1 million to Shs 8.5 million, while that of a senior consultant who is currently at Shs 3.4 million be increased to Shs 45 million.