Over 70 volunteer frontline healthcare givers comprising doctors and nurses working at the Lagos State isolation centre in Mainland Hospital, Yaba, have yet to be paid their three-month COVID-19 remunerations by the state government, findings by Sunday PUNCH have revealed.
Some of the representatives of the volunteer workers, in separate interviews with our correspondent, disclosed that the special allowances spanned from January to March.
A dejected medical doctor, who simply identified himself as Babalade, told our correspondent that the need to protest the outstanding payments became necessary when they observed that the state government had decommissioned some of their colleagues.
The physician disclosed that many of them were recruited from state general and teaching hospitals by the Health Service Commission while the rest of them resigned from private facilities with little or nothing to hope for once they are decommissioned.
“We didn’t sign up for this. The only reason we took up this job is because it is our primary assignment as caregivers. If we don’t do it, who will?
“Of course, we see how other nations take care of their frontline workers. Why is ours different? Everybody knows that in a pandemic, health workers are given special package or allowances besides their salaries as compensation for the risk. Why is the state government finding it hard to fulfill its promise?” he queried.
According to him, their core job was to compliment the efforts of health workers in managing COVID-19 patients at the Infectious Diseases Hospital in Yaba.
Over 70 volunteers yet to be paid
Babalade also accused the state government of trying to manipulate the frontline workers by subtly decommissioning them to avoid paying their three months remunerations.
“Now, we even heard that the government is trying to manipulate the ‘volunteer’ category which we (HSC caregivers) signed up for ‘secondment’ just to avoid paying us. Is that fair?
“Our coming here is not primarily because of money. But for us to leave our private facility for the IDH isolation centre, we were promised special COVID-19 allowance of N350,000 every month. Up till now, we have not been paid a dime. In fact, some have been decommissioned as we speak,” he bemoaned.
As of March 28, a source told our correspondent that there were over 70 frontline workers comprising 16 volunteers from the private sector and 56 caregivers from public facilities attending to COVID-19 patients at the Mainland Hospital.
He also disclosed that there was a prior arrangement with the infectious disease manager that private nurses would be paid N250,000 while private doctors would receive N350,000 per month.
The source also confided in our correspondent that volunteer workers under the Health Service Commission had been told that they would be paid only N120,000 during the second wave.
“We were told that if the payment doesn’t come by month end, we should expect it (latest) during the first week of every new month. But every time we reached out to Dr (Ismail) Abdulsalaam since January, he will reassure us ‘they will pay very soon.’ It is this same ‘very soon’ that kept workers sitting like ducks until many of us were decommissioned.”
Another aggrieved nurse who craved anonymity declared that feeding of volunteers was a major problem at the IDH.
“You need to see the quantity and quality of food we were given here, it is quite deplorable. Those of us who manage to secure food often count themselves lucky while others lament their misfortune.
“Sometimes, we are compelled to leave the facility in search of food outside, despite the management knowing we are managing so many COVID-19 patients here,” she said.
She also remarked that accommodation was another luxury that many workers didn’t have at the infectious disease facility.
According to her, with a tedious COVID-19 management roaster, many volunteers still come to work from home every day.
She said, “Only six frontline workers are privileged to secure accommodation within the facility. It is like we are being deceived to come here. Ever since I arrived here, I have observed lots of discrimination in terms of food, accommodation and other preferential treatment.
“We are not treated equally like the IDH staff we met here. In fact, I am afraid we (HSC staff) may not get paid for all our efforts going by the way things are run here.
“It is also obvious that they (government) are subtly decommissioning our people to avoid paying them. A similar thing was done to the last set of volunteers that showed up for the first wave of COVID-19. I am told they were denied their September remuneration under the guise that COVID-19 positive patients had reduced.
“I mean just look at how we are being treated here like slaves. No compensation, no communication. Nothing! Nobody is addressing us.”
Another volunteer nurse told our correspondent in confidence that 75 per cent of them were exposed to COVID-19 and going through different stages of treatment.
He said, “In fact, many of us here have tested positive and just recovering. And this is a disease we know that can bring fibrosis such that the lungs would not be able to perform their normal activities again in the nearest future.
“Having exposed ourselves to this same condition that we are treating in patients, we deserve better than the treatment being meted out to us by the state government.”
When contacted on Thursday, Director of Public Affairs at the Lagos State Ministry of Health, Tunbosun Ogunbanwo, described the issue as sensitive.
He asked our correspondent to forward his questions via his official WhatsApp number.
However, as of the time of filing in the story, he neither responded nor picked up subsequent calls from the correspondent.
Sanwo-Olu has approved payment
Reacting to the report, the Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Gbenga Omotoso, declared that the state governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, had given approval that the frontline workers should be paid.
He, however, disclosed that the only hindrance was the documentation process.
“It is not impossible to have this kind of problems when you are trying to get your papers together early in the year. Of course, none of the frontline workers will be asked to go without being paid,” he said.
On the allegation about quality of food at the isolation centre, the commissioner stated that there was a channel of communication to address that.
He explained, “I was told that they are still being fed. Do they expect to be served the ‘Sheraton’ way? Come on, we are talking about the civil service here. Even in the private sector, it is not easy for workers to walk up to their boss and begin to ask questions. So I understand what they (health workers) are going through. But the truth is that they have leaders.
“I know it may be hard to reach somebody like the Commissioner of Health, Prof. Akin Abayomi, for instance. But he has people around him that can give them information.
“Don’t let us lose sight of the fact that when Lagos first recorded the outbreak of COVID-19, no volunteer health worker wanted to come to the isolation centre. But when the government noticed the hesitancy, it started paying amount bigger than what these guys earn as salaries from their primary assignments. Some of these volunteers began coming in when they observed that frontline volunteers managing the COVID-19 cases are not dying as earlier feared.
“What the government initially thought would be a 100-metre is now turning out to be a marathon. This is because COVID-19 also affected governance and every facet of the economy. It torpedoed the plans of the government.
“Nobody is denying the fact that Lagos State Government owes the health workers. But as I told you, the governor has approved the payment. But you know that it must pass through a documentation process. It is the process that is a bit slow.”
On the complaints of inadequate accommodation, Omotoso said that he was aware that they (health workers) used to be lodged in hotels when the ‘pandemic was still very hot.’
He said, “But as I told you, the IDH facility which can take up to 300 people at once now has just five patients. If you look at the logic, it is simple. These guys (volunteer workers) have virtually finished what they came there to do. They are only staying there because they have not been paid.
“The truth is that every time the governor talks, he appreciates what they are doing. Every time Sanwo-Olu wants to say something that is not even connected to COVID-19, he salutes their courage, doggedness, diligence and attitude to duty.
“A government that appreciates them all the time like this cannot just be so cynical about them. It is down to just paper work which will be addressed as soon as possible. The Lagos State government has no history of owing workers, whether they are volunteers or regular workers.”