Striking Kenyan doctors post photos to reveal horrific conditions

Kenyan doctors are are taking to Twitter to show their abhorrent working conditions.
Kenyan doctors are are taking to Twitter to show their abhorrent working conditions.

Kenyan doctors are taking to Twitter to share photos and stories about the abhorrent working conditions in the public health sector. Their testimonies highlight major health hazards — from crumbling hospital walls to surgeons having to conduct operations by torchlight. The social media campaign is helping to turn public opinion in favour of the ongoing strike by Kenyan medical professionals.

In Kenya, more than 5,000 doctors and other medical professionals have been on strike since December 5, 2016 to denounce a crisis in the health sector. The doctors are calling on the government to honour a Collective Bargaining Agreement signed in 2013. The agreement, which promised to triple doctor’s salaries, has never been applied.

The strike has dragged on for more than a month. After the failure of discussions with the government, Kenyan doctors decided to take their campaign to social media to drum up public support. On Monday January 16, the Kenya Medical Practitioners Pharmacists and Dentists Union (KPMDU) launched the hashtag #mybaddoctorexperience, inviting medical professionals to share some of their daily struggles in their work.

Some of them shared terrible memories.

Others shared shocking photos of the medical facilities where they work. The hospital system in Kenya is graded by levels, from "Level 1" — community care at a very basic level — to "Level 5", a hospital providing specialist care including life support and intensive care for an entire region. There are only nine Level 5 hospitals in Kenya.

"Our patients are dying because we don’t have proper equipment”

Davis Ombui is a doctor at Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. He is also one of the spokespersons for KPMDU, the union of medical professionals.

We launched this hashtag after 44 days of strike. We have been criticised for carrying on the strike so long: during this time, public hospitals have been paralysed and there are patients who have gone untreated [Editor’s note: The Kenyan press has reported that people have died because of the strike, but Ombui denies this]. However, what we want to show is that, whether or not we come to work, our patients end up dying because we don’t have decent medical equipment.

Our main demand is an increase in the salaries of health professionals. Because doctors, dentists, pharmacists and others are badly paid in the public sector, so many decide to work in the private sector. The consequence is that the public health system lacks the human resources needed to provide good care.

The central government determines the health budget, but local authorities distribute the money to hospitals. This problem has been dragging on for a long time and no one wants to step up to the plate. Instead, everyone blames each other and nothing ever gets done.

"Some Kenyans have even started questioning where their tax money is going”

This hashtag also allows doctors to show the public exactly why they are on strike. Eli [not his real name] is a doctor who works in a hospital. He is participating in the strike. For security reasons, he has decided not to give his real name.

A lot of Kenyans are under the impression that this is a selfish strike by doctors who just want to be paid more money. We are using this social media campaign to show that the crippled health sector is a problem for our entire society, and that citizens are the main victims, particularly the poorest who can’t afford to go to private hospitals.

We want to be better trained and to work in health centres that are better stocked with medicine and decent equipment. We also want increased support for research. In the two days that we’ve been running this social media campaign, we’ve received many messages of support. Some Kenyans have even started questioning where their tax money is going as it is supposed to support health services.

Seven union representatives sentenced

On January 6, Kenyan doctors rejected the government’s proposal to increase their salaries by 40 percent and, instead, continued their strike. According to KPMDU, the new governmental proposal failed to include some engagements that had already been promised in the agreement signed in 2013, like better equipment for hospitals and more funding for research.

On January 12, a judge sentenced seven representatives of the doctor’s union to a one-month suspended sentence and gave them two weeks to call off the strike, which they said was illegal.

But the activists don’t want to back down and threatened to close down public hospitals if the government doesn’t agree to apply the conditions of the 2013 agreement by January 26, the deadline that the judge fixed for doctors to return to work.