Kenya’s health system on the verge of collapse as doctors’ strike grinds on

Striking Kenyan medics demonstrate over low pay at Uhuru Park in central Nairobi, on Monday. Photograph: Ben Curtis/AP

Kenya’s hospitals have almost ground to a halt, with millions facing a third month in a row without healthcare as doctors strike over low pay and poor working conditions.

The public healthcare system has long been overburdened and underfunded, but has now virtually stopped functioning after 5,000 doctors walk out in December after attempts to reach a compromise with the health ministry stalled.

“The machines break down frequently, the doctors are overwhelmed. The patients, they are so many that they are lying on the ground,” said Dr Judy Karagania, an ophthalmology resident at Kenyatta National hospital (KNH) in Nairobi, who is taking part in the industrial action.

Karagania and her colleagues are refusing to return to work until the government makes good on a 2013 agreement to dramatically increase salaries, hire thousands of new doctors and address drug and equipment shortages.

Kenya’s health ministry, as well as its president, Uhuru Kenyatta, has so far unsuccessfully tried to persuade union leaders to renegotiate the agreement, saying it is too costly.

As the crisis continues, seven medical union leaders were jailed on Monday for organising the strike, which had previously been ruled unlawful.

Kenyan doctors’ union leaders Ouma Oluga, left, Samuel Oroko, centre, and Allan Ochanji, right, are led away after a court hearing in Nairobi.
Kenyan doctors’ union leaders Ouma Oluga, left, Samuel Oroko, centre, and Allan Ochanji, right, are led away after a court hearing in Nairobi. Photograph: AP

As the standoff drags on, Kenyans are suffering from the lack of care. Patients at KNH, which is the country’s largest public health facility, face long waits to be seen by military doctors who have been drafted in, the sick lying on stretchers in the corridors of the emergency ward with no one attending to them.

“The army doctors are turning away patients,” said Karagania, who normally works as a resident medical officer at KNH. “They’re only handling the emergencies of emergencies.”

Purity Nyaguthie was sitting in the waiting room holding her one-year-old baby, Tasha, who was having difficulty breathing. The 23-year-old paid £56 for a three-hour taxi ride from her home in Kirinyaga County in central Kenya. X-rays showed pieces of paper lodged in one of the infant’s lung. An operation is necessary to remove the paper.

Several hours later, Nyaguthie and her daughter were still waiting for the procedure, which will cost her 100,000 kenyan shilling (£770) because the the family does not have health insurance. It is money Nyaguthie says she does not have, but more concerning is that every hour they wait the chances increase of Tasha’s lung becoming infected.

Nyaguthie blames both the striking doctors and ministry of health officials for the situation. “The government is not meeting their [doctors’] demands,” she said. “But they’re demanding for a high percentage [increase in pay] which the government may not be able to meet.”

While some national and foreign media have reported that doctors are asking for a 300% rise, the unions maintain that it is 96-125% when accounting for inflation.

Karagania, an ophthalmologist, blames the government for stalling.

“[The agreement] was signed four years ago and they have refused to implement it. It’s really unfortunate that the government has pushed us against he wall,” she said. “It’s the government’s responsibility to make sure that every citizen gets access to health. So it’s up to them to end this – fast.”

As for the millions of Kenyans who are struggling to access public health services in the doctor’s absence, Karagania said she hoped her and her colleagues could return to work soon.

“We really empathise as doctors. More than anyone else in this country, doctors can understand their pain. This agreement is for the long-term it’s to sure our children and grandchildren get good healthcare.”

Source: theguardian