Fear Grips Liberians As Health Workers Begin Nationwide Strike, However, …

MONROVIA – Health workers’ nationwide go-slow on Monday, September 23 had a crippling effect on health care services for thousands of people at government-run hospitals and clinics across the country. 

Report by Gerald C.Koinyeneh, Bettie Johnson Mbayo, Selma Lomax & Elton Wrionbee Tiah

Patients who had gone for treatment were turned away while inward patients were being removed by their families while those who cannot afford private health care were left in danger. 

In Paynesville, several people setup road blocks around the Du Port Road Clinic. The protesters included pregnant women and baby mothers who called on the government to address the plight of health workers promptly.

The protesters explained that they had gone for medical treatment and routine check-ups but were told that workers including nurses have laid down their tools in demand of salaries and arrears in solidarity.

“I’m worried about my situation because I’m eight months old pregnant. But to be frank, the health workers are not being treated fairly. So we all agreed to gather here and support them for the government to see reasons to respond to their needs,” said Fatu Sherriff.

Fatu Dennis, a baby mother, added: “My child is not well. This is where my family usually comes for treatment because of the low fees. Before I go find another place to take him, I want to stand with the rest of the people to tell the government to pay the workers because in the end we are the ones that suffer. 

“These are some of the reasons hospitals and clinics are lack of drugs because if you supply the drugs and can’t pay the manager of the drug, you are simply telling the managers to take the drugs and sell it to pay himself. Then we who are the patients, we end up suffering.”

One nurse at the Du Port Road Clinic, who refused to talk with the press, told a lawmaker who had gone on the scene to intervene that she makes less than US$250 and that her salary has not being paid one time.

The executive committee of the National Health Workers’ Union of Liberia, representing over 11,000 health workers had earlier warned about the go-slow in demand of salaries payment and increment.

They, among other things, are calling on the government to pay their arrears for the months of July and August 2019.

Negotiations between the government and the union were well underway but broke down when Sober George, a communication consultant at the Ministry of Health, prematurely announced that the Ministry had reached an agreement with the union to call off the planned strike action. 

This angered union executives and threatened to go with the strike. They termed George statement as false and misleading and show of insensitivity by the government to the plights of health workers.

Representative Rustonlyn Suacoco Dennis of District #4, Montserrado County – where the Du port clinic is located – said she had notified the Speaker of the House of Representatives in look into the health workers’ concern. 

Hon. Dennis was speaking to reporters when she visited the clinic and held a brief discussion with staff including the Officer in Charge of the center.

When quizzed whether she had a solution including paying the health workers arrears, she retorted: “I, myself have not taken pay for three months.”

Salaries are ‘Being Processed’

At a press conference on Monday at the Ministry of Information, Deputy Minister Eugene Fahngon disclosed that the government has responded to the concerns of the health worker.  

“All salaries payments for July and August 2019 have been processed and checks transfer to various commercial banks for direct deposit into health workers account,” Fahngon disclosed.

“Additionally, salaries for civil servants are being processed for the month of August – adjustments and corrections and the personal listing of the Ministry of Health have been concluded to reflect the proper positions and pay grades of positions in the ongoing harmonization process.”

He also said the government is calling on all health workers to return to work as it remains engaged with the leadership of the health workers association.

Later, Finance Minister Samuel Tweah said “money has not been the issue” causing the delays in salary payments but rather the harmonization process and moving from an outdated manual system to an electronic system. 

Children, Pregnant Women Hit Hard in Bong County

But before the assurance from the government, several damages had already been done.

In Bong County, a woman, who had given birth to triplet on Sunday, September 22, was sent away from the Phebe Hospital because of the strike.

FrontPage Africa reporter based in the county said Aletha Binda was experiencing “deep maternal concerns” but she had to move out of the maternal ward with her mother and aunty.

There was a somber atmosphere in the delivery section of the hospital Monday morning. There were little lights on in the ward and virtual darkness in the entire hospital due to fuel shortage.

At the C.B Dunbar Maternity Hospital in Gbarnga, a mother of a two-month-old child who was admitted in the hospital was seen pleading with doctors to treat her son.

A distraught Lucy McGill would only hope that doctors at least prescribe some medications for her child, whom she said had malaria and needed urgent medical attention.

Many patients in the county are feeling the traumatic effects of the health workers’ strike that is particularly hitting children and pregnant women pretty hard.

Dr. Jefferson Saybay, Chief Medical officer of Phebe Hospital, said the administration decided to send home patients after health workers downed their tools.

Fear of Deaths in Grand Bassa 

In Grand Bassa County, over 30 government-run health facilities were shut down. The Liberian Government Hospital – the only public referral hospital in Buchanan city – the Compound #3 Clinic, Well Baby Clinic, and District #2 Clinic are amongst health centers affected.

Moses Tukpah, who had gone to the government hospital for treatment on Monday morning and was rejected, told FrontPage that the action of the health workers might lead to more deaths if nothing is done to handle the situation.

He is worried that he might not live to see the end of the health workers’ protest if it continues for more than two days.

“I am in tears talking to you because my life and the life of others are at serious risk due to the action taken by the health workers. My condition along with other patients here are not good at all, if the health worker doesn’t return to help us we are finish,” Tukpah said.

“I am begging health workers to reconsider their decisions and come to our aid because we are dying here. I am asking them to help us for God’s sake because their action is a serious punishment to us the common people not the Government.”

Sundayway Tarr, another patient, added that she was “very disappointed in the government for downplaying the plight of the health workers”.

“I am frustrated because I paid L$800.00 from Grand Kola in District #4 just to get treatment for my kids but I came and met no doctors or nurses at any of the clinics due to the action of the health worker,” she said.

“If anything happens to my children and me, it will be the fought of the Liberian Government and not the health workers because those government workers feel that they can travel to get treatment so they don’t care about us the common people.”

A FrontPage Africa reporter in the county observed that several families and relatives of patients were relocating them to private clinics. Those who are unable to underwrite the cost of private health care were left worried about the lives of their relatives.

A doctor at one of the facilities in the county, who asked not to be named, confirmed to FrontPage Africa that majority of the patients have been left vulnerable at health facilities across Grand Bassa County.

He also disclosed that heads of health care facilities in the county attended a closed door meeting to find solution to the situation but it remains unclear whether a truce was reached. 

No Treatment for the Sick

Back in Montserrado County, patients were rejected at many other health facilities including Redemption Hospital on the Bushrold Island and the Slipway Community Clinic in central Monrovia.

Mariama Fofana, 35, was seen crying after community members told her the clinic was shut down. She had gone early at the Slipway Clinic to secure a spot in order to receive a ration of food for her six-month old baby, who is malnourished. 

“I feel very bad because this is the only food she eats. I am just hoping that they come tomorrow for the food,” she said.

Sarah Williams and her daughter traveled from 17 Street for her daughter to get vaccinated. “This is the only transportation I had to bring her for the vaccine; I don’t even know what happened if she doesn’t take it, this is seriously heartbreaking,” she said.

“This is not the change we hoped for the government should address it so that many people will not die because I know people will die with this action.”

Theresa Fahn had an accident in June this year and gets regular treatment at the Redemption Hospital. But she was turned down on Monday.

“This is an embarrassment, and look at my foot this is the only place I can do my dressing, I am so afraid to take it somewhere else because I am afraid of infection,” she said.

Simon Morris, acting president of the Redemption Workers Union, said the health sector has been challenged but the government ignores their concerns.

“It’s pathetic, we know how they feel, they come to the hospital to get well but we too have children and family we cannot abandon them, the Government compelled us to so this is what they want,” Morris said.

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