Nurses, doctors, and other health workers at the Simão Mendes National Hospital (SMNH) in Bissau walked off their jobs on September 20 this year, protesting unsafe working conditions and neglect by the government. Soon, they were followed by health workers in other regions of Guinea-Bissau. United under the slogan No sinta na casa pa é danu balur! (Let’s stay at home to be valued!), the workers have echoed the often-heard call by governments during the pandemic, who asked people to remain at home to minimize the spread of COVID-19.
In this case, health workers in Guinea-Bissau used a similar call to pressure the government to increase the budget for healthcare in 2022, and to ensure adequate staffing, fair remuneration, and validation of professional credentials. Their requests also include improvements to the management of the COVID-19 pandemic, including more support for frontline health workers.
According to data by Guinea-Bissau’s High Commissioner for COVID-19, by September 27, Guinea-Bissau had managed to vaccinate 13% of the targeted population (18+ years of age), but access to vaccines remains an issue. The vaccination rate remains under 5% of the total population, and the country is struggling to secure more significant amounts of vaccine doses. In addition to that, health services remain understaffed and health workers underpaid, which has led to an increase of tensions for the past year and a half.
Disruptions to essential health services
The workers’ boycott initially affected all aspects of healthcare provision, including key operations and COVID-19 wards, but the coordination of the National Union of Guinea-Bissau Workers (UNTG-CS) ensured the timely restoration of essential care services. In addition to the UNTG-CS, the action is coordinated by the National Union of Senior Health Officials (SINQUASS) and the National Union of Nurses, Health Technicians and Affiliates (SINTESA), all of whom reported working hard to ensure that key care is available to all who need it in spite of the strike.
During the first days of the action, the government attempted to mitigate the situation by referring patients to private hospitals and bringing in military health personnel to provide care at SMNH. As a response to what was perceived as an undemocratic move by government structures, several heads of departments at the hospital handed in their resignation on the second day of the action. At this time, the strike had already spread to health institutions outside Bissau, with some regions, like Gabu and Biombo, reporting almost 100% adherence to the strike by health workers.
The government has since attempted to smear the workers’ actions, blaming them for deaths that occurred since the beginning of the boycott and accusing the unions of not following the law when announcing the strike. The Attorney General went so far as to threaten the union officials with legal actions against the organizers of the strike. He also issued a public call to patients who think their health was threatened by the strike, prompting them to submit complaints to the police.
The workers have nothing to fear
According to Júlio Mendonça of the UNTG, however, the trade unions followed due procedure during the preparation of the strike, and he sees the government’s actions as attempts to intimidate the striking workers. “But we have nothing to worry about, because we did everything by the book and are only trying to make sure that the health system has everything it needs to respond to people’s needs”, he said for the local newspaper O Democrata.
Even though the trade unions managed to pressure the government into negotiations, more substantial and concrete improvements are yet to be reached. Mendonça said that in case the pre-agreement reached with the government’s negotiating team is not implemented, health workers are prepared to engage in more actions, and already have a new striking strategy in case that happens.
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