The middle and working class stare at poverty as strike bites

Friday December 9 2016

A patient in a hospital in Kisumu County on

A patient in a hospital in Kisumu County on December 8, 2016. Doctors are still on strike. PHOTO | TOM OTIENO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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This is a bad time for a Kenyan to fall sick.

It is worse for the poor and especially those in rural areas who have to travel long distances to seek treatment in public hospitals.

For them, it means after enduring the distance, which is likely to involve travelling on a bad road, they will find the health centre deserted now that doctors are on strike.

Even in the best of times, public hospitals can test the faith of the staunchest believer.

Queues at casualty are often long and it is not unheard of for a patient to die while waiting to see a doctor.

Too many times, doctors and nurses are overstretched and overworked and put it more hours at work than they signed up for.

In the outposts where there are no specialists, general practitioners have to attend to all, be it children suffering from malaria or adults who need surgery.

The fact that there is only one doctor for every 5,000 people says a great deal about the state of health in Kenya, considering that the recommended ratio is one to 600.

It means that an average employee routinely works eight times harder than his or her counterpart in a country that has met the World Health Organization recommendations.

Whereas such strain and exposure puts the average doctor and nurse at risk of burn-out and makes their work all the more risky, sometimes they are the only people available.

In a case reported in the Nation a few years ago, the only clinical officer at a dispensary in the heart of West Pokot said patients would knock on his door even when he was off duty.

On some nights, when he was meant to be relaxing, he would be summoned to attend to a woman in labour.


That he and the 5,000 other clinical officers have formally announced intention to go on strike today is enough to send alarm bells ringing.

If they make good their threat, it will mean that the little hope public hospitals offered will as well have flickered out, leaving the poor and the hapless with nowhere to turn to.

Clinical officers are demanding that the job evaluation conducted by the Salaries and Remuneration Commission be thrown out, saying it undermines the gains they have made in negotiation pay for diploma holders.

Their demands will add fuel to the fire lit by doctors demanding that their 2013 collective bargaining agreement be implemented.

When activist Boniface Mwangi was launching his book, UnBounded, last month, he warned the middle and working classes that they were only a phone call away from poverty.

“If you have a sick relative...and they start asking for are going to pay their medical bill,” he said.

With the high number of patients seeking attention in private hospitals, it means their working relatives will dig deeper into their pockets to pay for treatment of their loved ones when Christmas is just around the corner and schools are set to re-open in early January.

Clearly, when it rains it pours.

The writer is Deputy Managing Editor, Daily Nation