Although I am not a doctor, I hold the medical profession in very esteem. In fact, I dare say that next to God and his heavenly hosts are the doctors in whose hands many are condemned to live or perish. The Hippocratic Oath best underscores the special place of medical doctors, which is about the finest call to highest ethical standards by any profession. The Oath leaves the impression that Medicine is a divine call to service and whoever lacks an inherent sense of wanting to care for humanity, of wanting to save lives in a sacrificial and morally upright manner, has no place aspiring to be a physician.
Against this backdrop, the strikes and threats of it by the Enugu State University Teaching Hospital (Park Lane), ESUT-TH branch of the Nigerian Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) since the outbreak of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in the country appear to spite their calling.
At the root of the trade dispute is the Consolidated Medical Salary Scale (CONMED) for Nigerian doctors approved in 2014. After months of dogfight with the Governor Sullivan Chime administration, the government accepted to pay 70 percent of the new salary scale given that Enugu State is comparatively not among the rich states. And in fact, till date, not more than seven states across the nation pay the said CONMED.
The ESUT-TH Resident Doctors have also been up in arms under the Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi administration, insisting on the implementation of remaining 30 percent of the CONMED. It was understood that when news leaked that the Government of Enugu State was contemplating a pay raise for the doctor’s at the outset of the CONVID-19 in March, the ESUT-TH branch of the Nigerian Association of Nurses and Midwives equally embarked on protest, ostensibly over purported lack of Personal Protective Equipment, but which turned out to their own way of agitating for a pay raise based on of the Consolidated Salary Scale for Health Workers (CONHEALTH). Ultimately, the Governor was said to have set up a Committee, which eventually recommended 25 per cent CONVID-19 Allowance across board or for all health workers, including the resident doctors. This money was paid along with their April salaries.
However, the doctors immediately embarked on another once the “remaining” 30 percent CONMED did not reflect in their April salaries. This was despite the 25 percent COVID-19 allowance and a comprehensive life insurance approved for all ESUT-TH health workers and all doctors and health workers in the State Ministry of Health as part of the state’s resolve to strengthen the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Much as I would champion the best welfare for doctors, I don’t believe that cheap blackmail and arm-twisting is the way to go. Everything is wrong with this strike by the health workers at a time the entire world is faced with COVID-19, the greatest threat to humanity in the last 100 years. From North America to Asia, from Europe to Africa, all over, humanity is throwing in everything to wage the pandemic. The doctors, as frontline combatants are making sacrifices, including the supreme sacrifice. But here, our own physicians at Park Lane are chasing rats while the world is literally on fire.
This is nothing short of ambush. It is morally wrong to see such a challenging time in human history as an auspicious moment to pin the government down at the expense if lives. Is it not worth it. Is it unethical? And it is a collateral betrayal of their calling like a security guard, who abandons his duty post at a time the thieves pillageed the house.
Realistically speaking, if the past administration could not pay 100 percent of the new salary scale at a time of much higher petrodollars allocations to the state, including excess crude disbursements, from Abuja, is it pragmatic to expect that the current administration to pay at a time a oil price has hit the bottom due to a combination of the coronavirus crisis on global economy? Or when a commodity-driven economy like ours is in total disarray?
Then, there is the legality question. Section 31 (6) (a) of the Trade Union Act 2004 (as amended) and the Trade Union (Amendment) Act 2005 illegalises strike work to rule by persons involved in essential services during lockdown. And Section 7 (1) (b) (iv) of the Trade Dispute (Essential Services) Act 2010 defines essential services as services in connection with hospitals, treatment of the sick, and prevention of disease. Instructively, the National Industrial Court affirmed this in Attorney-General of Enugu State v. National Association of Government General and Dental Practitioners (2011). Consequently, the same Court had consequent upon an originating Summons, Motion Ex Parte and Motion on Notice filed by the State Government upon receipt of the Resident Doctor’s 28th February letter threatening to embark on strike restrained the doctors from such industrial action. Therefore, the this not only a disdain for the ethical and humanness demands of their profession, but a clear contempt of the law from which they derive their power to practice.
Meanwhile, you may accuse Ugwuanyi of every other thing, but certainly not lack of empathy and commitment to workers welfare. We can all recall the volume of arrears owed local government workers before he mounted the saddle. We can still remember that the industrial disharmony and action among state judicial workers before he took over. We can recall the piled up pension arrears. One can go on. Ugwuanyi cleared all. Even at the height of the recession, he did not owe workers. Today, Enugu is among the first set of states to implement the new minimum wage. It is not for nothing that the Nigeria Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress jointly honoured him with the “Most Labour-friendly Award in the history of Enugu State” in 2017.
Despite this apparent misstep by the ESUT-TH Resident Doctors, I do not condemn them. This is a call for them retrace their steps and return to the path of sound reasoning and dialogue, for as far as this strike is concerned, they don’t have the law or public sympathy on their side. It is an action clearly in contempt of their Oath, humanity, and the courts.
Writes from Enugu