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Health Workers’ Strike Action and Health Ministry’s Approach

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“Any worker who fails to work by February 21, 2014 should consider him or herself dismissed from the Ministry [Health and Social Welfare,” was the threat against Liberian health workers by the Minister of Health and Social Welfare, Dr. Walter T. Gwenigale on Monday, February 17  during a news conference in Monrovia at the start of the nation-wide strike action. Minister Gwenigale also told the news conference that any health worker who physically blocks another health worker or access to care of patients should consider himself or herself fired, describing the strike action as illegal.

“Starting from today, no one will be paid for days they have not worked; all directors and supervisors are requested to take attendance and keep accurate records of all who are coming to work and those who have chosen to stay away,” noted the Health Minister, further threatening that the Liberia National Police has been ordered to ensure protection for all health workers who wanted to work.

So, it was the battle line drawn on Monday at the start of the action between Dr. Walter T. Gwenigale et al of the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare and the National Health Workers Association of Liberia in a show of power of authority versus people’s power. Whether the decision announced on Monday, February 17, 2014 by Minister Gwanigale would best resolve the continuing crisis within the health sector is something that one must consider not workable. While one may empathize with the government, especially the Ministry of Health in the wake of the  drawn-down characterizing the medical NGO sector, it would been in the supreme interest of the sector and its beneficiaries for an immediate alternative mechanism  to continuously stabilize the sector after the NGOs with which most of these health workers worked shall have scaled down.

Many had  even  taken by surprise that the Liberian Health Sector,  having  been  favored by  an increase motivating Liberian Government  budgetary allotment of US$120, 115,516 in the 2013-2014 approved budget  from which donors account for US$64, 818,386 and US$30, 280,938 representing grants, would find itself in such a messy and unfortunate situation. One would have further thought that after experiencing last year’s strike action by health workers across the nation, assurances offered by Minister Walter T. Gwenigale and Deputies to stabilize the crippling public health sector would have been made practical to avoid the negative conditions accompanying the strike at the various public health facilities across the country, especially when there was an allotment of US$21,360,150 for compensation of employees.

With all of these in place, including the huge budgetary support, health workers, after one year, are again refusing to work at the various public health facilities across the country, demanding improved salaries and other incentives. Even with the “divide and rule tactics” couple with the threat of dismissal issued Monday by Dr. Gwenigale against health workers who vowed not to continue working, the situation will only continue to get worse to the detriment of patients. While the government was exerting efforts to address the demands of the workers, it was also important, in the interest of patients and other beneficiaries of the health sector, for meetings of the minds between authorities of the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare to begin the process of finally resolving the crisis.

Towards the foregoing, Minister Walter Gwenigale, as well as Deputy Ministers Vivian Cherue and Bernice Dahn must see themselves as ‘managers’ and do away with vices, including the threat of dismissal, that would prolong the strike action. Though dismissing about nine thousand health workers may just be a big ‘bluff’, it is also tantamount to ravaging the entire health sector. While it is an established and acceptable fact physician assistant, nurses, midwives and other health workers took an oath to serve humanity; such solemn commitment is also characterized by a decent working environment, motivating salaries and incentives.

It is no secret that after the doctors  shall have done all of the “cutting and stiches” for just a few minutes, it is the nurses who remain to ‘clean’ the mess for minutes, hours and days and continue to be with the patients until  they are well and discharged. So, why not treat them as professionals as it is done in other countries to include the United States, where Dr. Gwenigale, Dr. Cherue, Dr. Dahn and others many have acquired their Medical Degrees and also worked.

To the hard-working physician assistants, nurses, midwives and other health workers, the need for constructive engagements with authorities of the Health Ministry to find a lasting solution the crisis can only be emphasized in the interest of patients. Their demands and the way Minister Gwenigale and others have handled this matter for the last one year may not have been in the interest of a sustainable healthcare delivery system, but there may still be an opportunity for negotiations aimed at remedying the situation- and meetings of the minds would serve such best purpose.

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