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Despite suffering without doctors, Kenyans support strike

A pregnant Sharon Andisi, 23, crouches down outside the Pumwani Maternity Hospital, after being turned away because of a month-long strike by state doctors, in Nairobi on Monday. (AP)
NAIROBI: A wave of contractions forces Sharon Andisi to crouch by the dusty taxi rank outside a hospital. Although she is about to give birth, she has just been turned away from Kenya’s only public maternity hospital because of a month-long strike by state doctors.
As a crowd gathers around her outside the Pumwani Maternity Hospital, a taxi driver offers to take Andisi to a private hospital. Like most Kenyans, Andisi, 23, an out-of-work teacher, cannot afford the $100 fee the private clinic charges for a delivery without complications, compared to the $15 charged in public facilities, but she has no choice.
Just as she makes it to the reception at Edna Clinic, Andisi gives birth to a baby girl she names Rosa.
Andisi was lucky. Local broadcaster, Citizen TV Saturday, followed a pregnant woman whose baby died after she was turned away from Pumwani hospital, where more than 350 mothers give birth a week during normal operations.
Such scenes have become frequent across Kenya as the doctors’ strike stretches into a second month. The strike began on Dec. 5. The doctors are adamant that Kenyatta’s government must honor a collective bargaining agreement it signed in 2013 to increases their salaries by 180 percent.
The strike has caused a near-total paralysis in the health sector and dozens are believed to have died from lack of emergency services, despite no statistics showing the strike’s impact. Early in December, President Uhuru Kenyatta said that at least 20 people had died as a result of the strike.
Kenyatta has twice asked the doctors to return to work, first appealing to their humanity for the suffering masses and the second time offering a partial increase of the salary hikes negotiated in agreement with doctors in 2013.
The Kenya Medical Practitioners Pharmacists and Dentist Union rejected both offers and urged the government to pay the salary increases it promised three years ago.
In 2012 doctors went on strike to protest the dilapidated state of public health care. Emergency rooms in some of Kenya’s public hospitals frequently do not have gloves or medicine, and power outages sometimes force doctors to use their cell phones to provide adequate light for a surgical procedure.
“We are totally fed up,” said union official Dr. Nelly Bosire. Despite the high level of academic qualifications required to become a doctor, doctors in public hospitals earn a basic monthly salary of $400, compared to a Kenyan legislator who earns about $13,600 a month, Bosire said. She said doctors have been pressing for a pay increase since 1984.
Kenyatta’s administration argues that the public sector wage bill is too high and the doctors’ demands will set off pay hike demands from other civil servants. Kenya’s Health Ministry is being investigated by the Ethics and Anti-Corruption commission for the loss of millions of dollars.
The government said it will fire all striking doctors who have not returned to work by Wednesday. A Kenyan court also issued a warrant of arrest for union officials for failing to stop the strike, as the court had earlier ordered them to do.
But many of the doctors are not frightened by threats of being fired because they run businesses on the side to supplement their meagre government incomes, said Bosire.
Despite the travails she went through giving birth, Andisi said she supports the doctors’ strike.