In the face of massive protests by health workers, Kenya’s cabinet finally approved a Comprehensive Insurance Cover against the COVID-19 pandemic for all frontline workers on Friday, September 11. Various sections of the country’s public health workers have been taking part in strikes, go-slow protests and demonstrations over the past few weeks.
Earlier, the country-wide strike of nurses that was scheduled to begin the same day was deferred by 21 days to October 1. The Kenya National Union of Nurses (KNUN) secretary general, Seth Panyako, said in a press statement on September 9 that this decision was taken to give the government more time to address their grievances.
One of the many grievances of the medical professionals was the lack of medical cover. Due to this, many of the over 800 medical professionals who have contracted the virus have had to pay out of their pockets for their treatment. Of the more than 16 healthcare workers who have died, “none has been compensated so far and there are no plans for their compensation,” the strike notice that was issued on August 20 said.
The notice added that it was “unfortunate” that “despite our numerous calls for training to be done vigorously at the start of the pandemic, only about 21% health workers have received training so far.”
The notice was issued under the banner of Kenya Health Professionals Society (KHPS), which consists of the KNUN, alongside the Kenya Union of Clinical Officers (KUCO), Kenya National Union of Laboratory Officers (KNUMLO), Kenya National Union of Pharmaceutical Technologists (KNUPT) and the Kenya Union of Nutritionists and Dieticians (KUNAD).
Noting that a majority of their colleagues who had succumbed to the disease had pre-existing medical conditions, the unions demanded that such health workers, along with those who are pregnant or above the age of 55, must “be excluded from active duty.”
They should not be excluded from Health Risk Allowance and must be provided with a “COVID Allowance” for upkeep during this period of exclusion until June 2021 or till the “end of the outbreak, whichever is longer,” the notice added.
To replace them and to fill in the already existing shortages, the unions demanded that an additional 10,000 health workers be employed. All medics on duty should be provided with a comprehensive medical cover, life insurance and dedicated isolation wards and healthcare facilities for those who contract the virus, the strike notice insisted.
Unions have also taken up grievances of contractual health workers whose remunerations and benefits are less than that of the permanent workers. To resolve this and reinforce equal pay for equal work, the notice insisted that all contractual engagements should be converted to “permanent and pensionable” employment.
In a letter on September 9 addressing the cabinet secretaries of the health and labor ministries, the KNUN said the decision to temporarily suspend the strike for 21 days was for nurses only. While the other unions are also reported to not have gone ahead with the countrywide strike, labor unrest continues in a number of counties due to unpaid remittances and lack of PPEs.
On September 10, health workers in public hospitals administered by the Baringo county downed tools, demanding that their promotions, which have been pending for many years now, be put into effect.
“We also demand that our members be given two PPEs and two surgical masks daily. It is not our happiness to down tools but circumstances have forced us to do so. Until all these demands are met, we shall keep off work places,” Moses Chirchir of the Baringo branch of Nurses Association of Kenya said. The striking workers in this county include nurses, clinical officers, public health officers, physiotherapists, nutritionists among others.
Urging the heath workers to call off the strike and resume work, Baringo county’s executive for health, Mary Panga said, “I am happy to announce to you that re-designation and confirmation letters are being processed and you will receive them in the next one week.”
However, she seemed to indicate that not everyone whose promotion has been due can be redesignated at once, which will cost USD 2,490,248.88 (Sh 270 million). Without giving an estimate of how long this might take, she added, “We talked with Finance officials and they have told us that very little funds are available for promotion of everyone and as soon as we receive more funds we shall promote everybody.”
Pending promotions has been a major source of discontent in different counties, including in Narok, where many medics have allegedly stagnated in the same job grade for over a decade.
On September 8, following a demonstration outside the Narok County Hospital, the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union (KMPDU), whose members include doctors, issued a 14-day strike notice to the county authorities, which will lapse on September 21.
“The county government has failed to cater for the welfare of the healthcare workers by not implementing promotions, re-designation, indemnity cover and failing to address the issues of acute shortage of health workers,” the union’s South Rift Region Secretary Davji Atelliah said.
The following day, on September 9, 2,400 health workers including doctors, nurses, pharmacists and lab technicians withdrew their service. Remittances amounting to USD 3,689,257.60 (Sh 400 million), deducted from the salaries of medics for the National Hospital Insurance Fund and other institutions, have allegedly not been paid to them.
“This government is taking us for a ride and we shall take it head-on,” insisted KMPDU eastern region chairperson Dennis Mugambi. A number of patients were reportedly left without care in hospitals as the strike action started.
However, the health workers, who, despite paying from their wages for the insurance fund, had been left with no medical cover while being on the frontlines of the battle against the pandemic, pin the blame on the Embu county government headed by governor Martin Wambora.