The National Association of Resident Doctors has raised the alarm that it is being threatened by some government agencies to call off its ongoing strike.
This comes four days into the nationwide strike which according to the association is to protest against the failure of the Federal Government to honour their agreements, including the payment of salary arrears and indemnity for their colleagues who died in the line of COVID-19 duty.
The National President, NARD, Dr Uyilawa Okhuaihesuyi, told Sunday PUNCH in an interview on Thursday that even though they had the duty to save lives, they are first human beings who had needs and should not be denied their entitlements.
He said this was a fight for survival, noting that they were tired of signing a memorandum of understanding with the government as the previous ones had yielded no result.
The leadership of the association had met with the Federal Government delegation on Wednesday night, during which the government appealed that the planned strike be shelved, but the association commenced the strike on Thursday, April 1.
The Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr Chris Ngige, had said on Friday that government would not hesitate to invoke the ‘No work no pay’ provision in the labour laws if they failed to call off the strike.
But in a telephone interview with one of our correspondents, Okhuaihesuyi said the government had not been fair, noting that since the association issued its ultimatum on January 25 and having written series of letters to the relevant ministries and agencies, nothing was done.
The development has however paralysed activities in many teaching hospitals across the country, inflicting serious hardship on Nigerians who need medical care in such institutions.
Asked if Nigerians had helped in putting pressure on the government to do what was necessary to end the stalemate and address the inadequacies in the health sector, Okhuaihesuyi said, “Nigerians are actually scared. Basically, people cannot talk because they are scared of the unknown and there is fear of being harassed.
“Since this strike started, I have received calls from many government agencies to shelve the strike. Some are in form of threats. It’s that bad. They think it is politics, forgetting that we cannot play politics with human lives. We are professionals and being a doctor means you have sworn an oath to take care of lives but when you are hungry or you become a patient, what is your fate?”
Efforts to get the NARD President to expatiate on the threats were not successful as his line could no longer be reached till press time on Saturday.
Okhuaihesuyi also said in the interview that government was unfair in the way it was treating them. He added, “Resident doctors make up about 70 per cent of all the doctors in the workforce in Nigeria. That is independent of the challenge many doctors have in securing placement for their residency programme and that is also a big challenge.
“That was why we mentioned doctors on Government Integrated Financial Management Information System platform in our communiqué. That is the platform used in paying doctors that are not fully employed in the hospitals, and so there was leakage and fraud in the platform and it was closed. That means the number of doctors on the GIFMIS platform, which was over 3,000, have all stayed for four months without being paid.
“You can’t place an embargo on the employment of doctors while the ones employed are not being paid.”
He also expressed dissatisfaction that health workers were still being paid N5,000 as hazard allowance. He said, “All health workers earn N5,000 as hazard allowance while the hardship allowance of lawmakers is N1.2m. Nigeria is a peculiar country and it is become frustrating.
“That is why you cannot blame the people that are leaving (Nigeria). Doctors are first of all human beings and they need to survive before they can treat people. So, when they have not been paid for four months, how do they treat others? Therefore, this is a fight for survival.”
Okhuaihesuyi said further that 17 resident doctors had lost their lives to the COVID-19 pandemic and that it was high time the government implemented the terms of their agreements rather than inviting them to sign a memorandum of understanding.
He added, “The problems we are having now are the same with what we have had over five years ago, so it has become a recurring issue because of government’s failure to honour its own agreement. They tend to rush to sign agreements but they don’t honour them. That’s where we are.
“We have members who have not been paid for four months and some for 20 months. These are members who are in the first level after graduation and have worked for four months but they have not been paid any salary.
“So, is it the MoU government brings up from time to time that would substitute for their salary? There are Residents (resident doctors) that have been in the system and were paid through GIFMIS platform but when government stopped GIFMIS and moved to IPPIS, they have not been paid for months. These are some of the issues. So MoU is not the answer.”
Meanwhile, the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr Chris Ngige, said on Saturday that government had substantially met the demands of the doctors. He faulted the rejection of the Memorandum of Action signed on Wednesday by the leadership of the association with the Federal Government.
The minister, who spoke to journalists on Saturday, explained that some of the demands by NARD were made in error as some of the issues were already sorted out and implemented 100 per cent. He noted that the outstanding issues that came up at the last conciliation had timelines as they were work in progress.
The minister said, “NARD made some of the demands in ignorance. They didn’t have the full picture; maybe they wished for a strike or their president pushed them into the strike so that his name would go into the annals of NARD as one of the tough presidents that has taken them on strike. That is wrong.
“He (the association’s president) didn’t participate in most of the discussions last Wednesday because he fell ill not long after the meeting started and had to excuse himself. He handed over to his deputy, the Secretary General and other officers of the association, who fully participated. We spent seven hours and by the time we put our signatures to the papers, it was eight hours.
“Disowning the MoA duly negotiated is unknown to labour. The two parties to the negotiation signed the MoA. Four officers from government and three from NARD signed the document and their president who was not at the meeting but fully represented by deputies went to NARD’s NEC and disowned the paper because they were signed by his deputies and secretary general.
“There is what is called transmission of power. He, as the president, fell sick and his deputies continued with the meeting. That is allowed.”
According to him, a memorandum was signed that NARD would go and educate its members on what had been agreed on and that they would reconvene after four weeks to create time to implement the issues.
He however expressed disappointment that NARD made a detour and mobilised its members into action.
Ngige dismissed as untrue allegations that doctors in public health institutions across the country were not insured.
He said, “The Federal Government in March 2020 spent N13.3bn on group life insurance for all workers comprising all federal civil servants and public servants in some parastatals that can’t afford the insurance for their staff members.
“The N13.3bn was paid to 13 insurance companies and brokerage firms to administer. This is not the first time that NARD and teaching hospitals have been told to send in names and make claims for members who have lost their lives.
“It is an insurance that ran for one year till March and even at that, new payment is now being processed so that it becomes a continuous thing.”
He said, “If you have a cover and didn’t make a claim, nobody will pay you. Make your claim through the Ministry of Health and from there to the Office of the Head of Service. It gets to the insurance companies and payment will be made.”
He explained that the Federal Government fast-tracked the insurance cover in anticipation of casualties from COVID-19.
He added, “With COVID-19, we envisaged that health workers would need this more than any other person, so the Federal Government rushed the bill. There is a group life insurance in situ now for every health worker. Therefore, it is dishonest for anyone to make a claim to the contrary.
“We also have additional insurance from the Presidential Task Force (on COVID-19) especially for those who work inside the COVID-19 isolation centres for them to get something additional. Moreover, there is insurance for compensation for injuries, diseases and even death in the course of work, called Employee Compensation.
“There is an Act, the Employee Compensation Act operated by the Nigeria Social Insurance Fund. Once you are insured under it, you make your claim.”