I have always contended that the definition of immorality to mean salacity is minimalistic. It is immoral when citizens of this country wallow in poverty in the midst of abundance; it is immoral when someone occupies the seat of the governor of a state and plunders it to penury, only to be adjudged an impostor three years after the electoral heist; it is immoral when members of the national assembly manipulate the process for pecuniary gain; it is immoral when under fives’ die of preventable childhood illnesses when the resources to prevent this kind of scandal abound.
For the same reasons, the strike by medical workers is immoral and the sooner we call it the right name, the better it is for the system, the citizenry and the weak central government.
It must be stated that medicine is one of the noblest of professions, as the power of life and death, as it were, is placed in the hands of a mere man, who himself faces the realities of mortality on a minute-to-minute basis. The rigour of medical training, the hazards of the profession and the demands on the time of the physician are enough reasons to justify excellent remuneration for the physician, and by extension, members of the health team. Unfortunately, physicians are poorly paid. As if this was not enough, the tools to work with are as rudimentary as a caveman’s. Agitation by the National Association of Resident Doctors to have the government invest in postgraduate medical training has fallen on the government’s deaf ear, and the government has not gratified this request with an answer, even in the negative. This only proves two things: first, the government has only contempt for this vital social sector and its practitioners. It feels the rhetoric of ‘health for all’ will suffice to assuage the real health needs of its teeming albeit ill populace. Second, and sadly, it proves that government officials have no intention of visiting our hospitals when their bodies remind them of their mortality. The plan to continue to patronize their Indian, German and Saudi Arabian doctors for the most mundane health concerns still subsists.
Government has continued to argue that it cannot allocate all its resources to one sector, but I dare say it is allocating anything at all, given the fat sums of money that our honorable legislators and political appointees fritter on inanities. Small as the allocation is, even the little that goes in is thieved away by sticky-fingered hospital administrators. The insincerity of successive governments in handling the decay in the health sector is no longer in doubt. The twilight of the Obasanjo administration however offered a modicum of hope with the installation of state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment in several teaching hospitals, the training of hospital staff to man the equipment and the completion of several tertiary care hospitals. Save for these modest landmarks, the health sector has continued to snore in an uncomfortable sleep, even under the sickly former President Yar’adua. It is hardly convincing argument that it is too early to judge the present administration as per its performance in this sector.
The body language is the same: the health sector is sick and sleepy, still.
It is worrisome that a government which has sworn an Oath of Allegiance, to protect the people of this country, is supervising the massacre of innocent lives occasioned by the on-going doctors’ strike. While the government and the doctors argue about who should concede ground, while the argument for how much the doctors should be paid subsists, while the haggling for unpaid arrears continues, someone very dear to his family and friends is breathing his last. And no one’s conscience is asking questions, neither the governments’, nor the doctors’. The Hippocratic Oath, the oath that doctors take upon graduation from medical school, states, inter alia that, “most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God…..If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help. Like most oaths in Nigeria, the weight of the words is lost on the oath taker. Both the Oath of Allegiance and the Hippocratic Oath are mere words, a formality to move to the next important step: the race for lucre, licit and illicit. This is immoral.
At the last count over 5 states are groaning under the weight of another doctors’ strike. Sadly, the warring parties are arguing feverishly, trying to woo the sympathies of the public, the same public that is the victim of this immoral strike. Very soon, someone will win the argument but not before the untimely passing of many.
I have failed to understand the rationale for a strike in the health sector, other than that strikes are the only language that the government understands. In saner climes, employees go on strike and accept that they cannot in good conscience receive a salary for the period of that industrial action. Here, our doctors even demand arrears of their pay during the last strike. The government is the victimizer of its own citizens, failing hopelessly in its basic function of providing security and welfare. It would appear that it doesn’t care about the welfare and health needs of its people. As if this wasn’t enough, doctors refuse to treat their patients, hoping that government officials will feel the pain. Bottom line: the patient is in a precarious position, sandwiched between a recklessly careless government and a lucre-driven medical practitioner. If doctors blackmail the government, using the patient as bait to negotiate better pay, I ask, have the kidnapped the right host? I don’t think so, for the government doesn’t care about the bait. In fact, the bait – the poor patient - is a victim of the government too.
Medicine is a humanitarian science. There is no amount that can be paid to a doctor to compensate him for his art, his skill, his endeavour. It is a ‘calling’, according to the Hippocratic Oath. Nigerian doctors must recognize that this whole affair transcends pecuniary interests. If just one person dies as a result of this strike, someone ought to answer to his conscience at best, or the State at worst. If just one person dies, then it extends our definition of immorality. The government, seen as reckless by the average Nigerian, must make a conscious effort to fund medical training, and forge useful partnerships with private concerns in order to equip hospitals with the right working tools. Anything short of this is a recipe for chaos. The time to do away with empty promises is now. Our president, Goodluck Jonathan has acres of goodwill, which he cannot afford to expend. In the best interest of the poor mass of Nigerians who groan under all sorts of social, political and economic weights, let this immoral strike end at once.
Written by Daniel Bott
Public Affairs Analyst