There are some Kenyans who have made a career out of mudslinging doctors and university lecturers. Some even hope and pray that government wins against doctors and lecturers in the current labour dispute. Others have written to prophecy about this. Bishop David Oginde, while deploying a historically inaccurate analogy of Jonas Savimbi, recently argued that the persisting strike had reached a point where it is no long tenable.
Others cite the growing irrelevance of the strike claiming that only few Kenyans even notice that doctors are on strike. What must surprise is that every time the strike is judged irrelevant, a slew of people are deployed to negotiate with doctors. Why negotiate if the strike is irrelevant and unnoticeable?
This past week, the President and Council of Governors combined their forces to lash out at doctors. In a week in which the President adopted an uncharacteristically bellicose attitude, he threatened to "sort out" the doctors. The truth, though, is that being dismissive of doctors or lecturers, withholding their monthly salary or threatening them with the sack isn’t a solution.
Maybe some Kenyans don’t know this. There is a critical mass of skilled doctors or lecturers who remain in the public sector not for want of alternatives but because they are committed and patriotic. It makes but little sense to threaten these skilled people with the sack or withhold their monthly salary. At best, the threats only assist them make that decision to transition out of the public sector. Yet too many Kenyans keep over-estimating the remunerative value of working in the public sector.
The challenges within the health and education sectors are real. They touch on a work environment in which basic facilities are broken and neglected. At the heart of the doctors strike in particular is a concern not just about their personal welfare as highly skilled labour but also how their capacity to perform their duties is undermined by lack of basics including medicine. Many have witnessed patients they can treat die for lack of such basics.
Instead of responding to this with a vigorous plan to address the challenges in the work environment, we have elected to reduce the issue to what we perceive as greed and lack of professionalism among doctors. We cite specific anecdotes to counter what are broad institutional challenges. Precisely because every Kenyan has an anecdote to share about their bad experience with a doctor or a lecturer, we think that that is reason why this labour dispute should be defeated.
I can understand if you have a personal issue with the few doctors or lecturers you know. I understand if you have issues with doctors or lecturers because your loved one had a horrible experience with one doctor or lecturer. I can even understand if you know of cases where doctors or lecturers have caused untold or unnecessary suffering to some Kenyans.
But that is tangential to the issues at hand. This is not about your anecdote or your single story against a specific doctor. This is about a work environment that is not conducive for work. For me, the issue is clear. Give the doctors and lecturers their due and demand from them only the best. If that is too much to ask, let Kenyans accept and remain witness to semi-educated graduates who end up treating your patients.
No one denies that many professions need thorough cleaning. I have previously called for a Judiciary-type radical surgery of university lecturers. To me, it is not news to hear any Kenyan claim unhappiness about what we do at the university. Some lecturers actually understand the unhappiness Kenyans feel about the university. Yet the obligation for quality control ultimately rests with government. It is, therefore, silly for government officials to dismiss the doctors’ strike citing one example of a doctor who failed a patient. For the umpteenth time, Kenyans, doctors or lecturers are not your enemy.
Godwin R. Murunga teaches at the University of Nairobi.