By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 25 May 2014
In the past few weeks, this country has lost several doctors due to various causes. The recent killings of doctors in Nakuru and Meru are particularly noteworthy because they poignantly illustrate the state of our nation.
Firstly, outside of medical circles, these killings have gone virtually unremarked and police have, as usual, chalked them down to “normal thuggery”. This reflects the general situation in this country, where we have accepted that we can lose such important members of our society and not be shocked. We are so preoccupied with ethnic sharing of the national cake that we are unable to appreciate the fact that the scarce health worker resource continues to be depleted in preventable ways.
Secondly, these killings demonstrate the difficult working conditions that many health workers are having to contend with as they serve the thankless populace. Many doctors are working extremely hard to save lives, often without anyone to relieve them when they are tired. They work long hours and have little time for their families or friends.
Unfortunately, when they burn out and decide to take a break, they are often accused of having abandoned their patients to go and “enjoy” themselves. And when they continue working despite their inevitable problems, they become error-prone and are crucified for every small mistake they make. When their luck finally runs out, they find armed thugs waiting for them when they come home after a long night at work. This once-glorified profession has lost its lustre, and now carries the risk of premature mortality and a lifetime of suffering.
Thirdly, the fact that these unfortunate deaths have not triggered talk of a crisis in the health sector clearly demonstrates that both the national and county governments are only paying lip-service to the health of their people. Measures have not been taken to protect health workers and ensure that they operate in a more conducive environment. The national government has all but abandoned health workers, leaving them at the mercy of county administrations that often don’t have the foggiest idea on how to manage a health workforce.
As a result, health workers are continually being threatened with the sack for a variety of ills, real and imagined. Every so often, a governor lashes out at these “thankless officers who are trying to avoid supervision” and promises citizens that he will make them work or fire them if they are lax in their duties. Many have resigned as a direct consequence of this intimidation, while others have, in the past, been “released to the national government” in an undisguised move to eliminate “foreign” professionals from some counties.
A Kiswahili saying aptly captures the current state of affairs: Usiwatukane wakunga na uzazi ungalipo (Do not insult midwives while women still give birth). As things stand, health professionals feel badly treated, insulted and abandoned by the political class while, on the other hand, citizens are demanding more and more from them.
Perhaps if we knew that everyone will at some point need to see a health professional, we would plan differently. Maybe we would allocate more funding to the health ministry, use the funds to train and hire more health workers, and procure equipment and supplies that would make their work more effective, and rewarding?
But maybe nobody cares!
Dr Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and senior lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine. firstname.lastname@example.org