Anti-corruption protests, health workers’ agitations point to depth of Kenya’s COVID-19 crisis

Very little progress has been made in resolving the issues raised by doctors and nurses in Kenya. Meanwhile, protests have broken out in many cities against alleged misappropriation of funds for COVID-19 equipment

August 26, 2020 by Pavan Kulkarni
Kenya protest
Protest against corruption in Mombasa on August 25. (Photo: Wachira Mwangi/Daily Nation)

Protests against the alleged theft of COVID-19 funds took place in the Kenyan capital Nairobi on August 21, Friday. The protests spread to Nakuru on Monday and reached Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city, by Tuesday. There are accusations of misappropriation of millions of dollars of funds meant for essential equipment and medical supplies against the authorities. 

The police used tear gas to disperse the protesters in multiple cities and several activists were arrested for reportedly violating the COVID-19 restrictions.    

At the same time, labor unrest over unpaid salaries of healthcare workers has been brewing in the country. Health workers have been working with limited PPEs and without medical cover for several months now. This is when hundreds of health professionals in Kenya have contracted COVID-19 and many of them have succumbed to the disease as well. 

In several Kenyan counties, doctors, nurses, lab technicians and other health sector workers have downed tools in protest. Unions are also mobilizing for a country-wide healthcare strike on September 10

Health Workers Strike

In Nairobi county, strike action by 320 doctors employed in government-run hospitals has been ongoing since August 21. The strike was called over the non-payment of their salaries since July, pending promotions, and the lack of PPEs and medical cover. While negotiations to resolve the strike have begun, very little progress has been made so far. 

The Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union (KMPDU), after a meeting with officials from the Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS) and the county government, reiterated on Monday that the strike will continue until the “bare minimums” are met.

“Unless doctors are covered by insurance and a waiver is issued on promotions, the strike will go on,” said KMPDU’s Nairobi county general secretary, Thuranira Kaugiria, to reporters at the county assembly where the meeting had been chaired by majority leader Abdi Guyo.

Since the beginning of July, most doctors in Kenya have worked without any medical cover. This is because multiple counties have not paid the remittances due to the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF). Doctors who contracted COVID-19 have reportedly been forced to pay for their own treatment as a result.

NMS deputy director-general Robinson Thuku claimed that his office is in discussion with the NHIF to resolve the issue. “It is work in progress as we have received a proposal from NHIF. We have already engaged our human resource department to look into what is needed,” Thuku said.

On the dispute over promotions, Nairobi County Public Service Board reassured the striking doctors that it will ask for waivers on promotion in a letter to the Public Service Commission (PSC) on Tuesday.

Only 100 doctors were promoted by the city authorities in January, while another 220 eligible doctors were left out. On this issue, Kaugiria said, “What we want are rightful promotions and not only for a certain cadre. Let people be promoted equally depending on their papers.” 

Another non-negotiable demand of the union is the reinstatement of five specialists at the Mama Lucy Kibaki hospital, who were taken off the payroll 26 months ago. They have not been reinstated despite being cleared of all wrongdoing over a year ago in an investigation by the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI). 

The KMPDU has sent four letters to the Nairobi authorities for their reinstatement but to no avail.  Acting county secretary Justus Kathenge is reported to have reassured the union that the five specialists will be reinstated soon and their pending wages for 26 months will also be cleared. 

“We are ready to call off the strike but for that to happen our bare minimums must be met. Most of these issues are actionable and can be done away with immediately,” Thuranira said. Officials have indicated that these demands will be met in a week. 

 However, the parallel ongoing strikes by nurses and other healthcare workers have seen no significant progress towards resolution. On Thursday, a day before the doctors’ strike, nurses, who had already been on a go-slow strike, downed tools in multiple counties, along with lab technicians, clinical officers and other health sector workers. 

A large number of them have not been paid salaries for three months, and some for allegedly six months. 

On August 2, the Kenya National Union of Nurses (KNUN) issued a 7-day strike notice. The union’s secretary general, Seth Panyako, warned that “together with all health workers and other county public servants, we will bring this country to its knees on Monday 10th if these issues are not addressed with the urgency that they deserve and specifically the issue of the salary arrears for the last three months.”

The strike action was stopped by the order of a court in Kenya’s third largest city, Kisumu, after an assurance from county secretary Godfrey Kigochi that their salaries will be paid by August 19. The court had ordered the union to not go on strike until this date. However, since the payments were not made, the healthcare workers downed tools on August 20. 

Along with KNUN members, workers represented by the Kenya National Union of Clinical Officers, Kenya National Medical Laboratory Officers and the Union of Kenya Civil Servants have joined the strike. Healthcare services in Kisumu county have seen the most disruptions as a result. Nairobi and Homa Bay are also affected.  

Protests against corruption

In the meantime, protests against corruption are spreading across Kenyan cities. Government authorities face allegations of stealing millions of dollars meant for PPEs, medical supplies and other equipment to counter the pandemic.

A USD 7.7 million procurement of these supplies is being investigated by the anti-corruption agency. Three officials of the Kenya Medical Supplies Agency Board, including its CEO Jonah Manjari, have been suspended so far.

On August 21, the police in Nairobi used tear gas to disperse protesters demanding accountability for the COVID-19 funds. At least five activists were reported to have been arrested on the grounds that the protest violated COVID-19 protocols. 

“We are demanding the arrest of the people who are known thieves, who are known to have stolen COVID-19 [equipment], but they are still free. The police, instead of coming to tear gas us, they should be in the offices investigating, making sure these people are taken to court and jailed,” said one of the organizers, Wanjeri Nderu.

Four more were arrested at the protest in Nakuru, the capital city of Nakuru county, where activists raised placards reading “Arrest Covid-19 funds thieves”. On Tuesday, the protests spread to Mombasa, where the police reportedly charged the protesters with batons and used teargas to disperse them. Five protesters were also arrested.