Medical workers in Kenya have been on strike for almost a week with deadly consequences for the African country. President Kenyatta announced Wednesday that almost 20 patients have died, and news agencies report that 87 patients have escaped from the country’s psychiatric hospital. The death toll will continue to rise unless a solution can be found.Across the country, doctors, nurses, and allied health care professionals are striking. They allege the government has failed to deliver on much-needed wage increases promised in a 2013 union agreement. As with many African nations, Kenya’s health system is chronically underfunded, and many physicians and nurses move overseas to better-paid positions, which only increases the burden for the workers left behind. With over 44 million residents and a limited supply of physicians, Kenya currently has only one doctor per 16,000 Kenyans. The doctors’ union is arguing that better pay would lower that ratio.
As a temporary solution, the government has sent military doctors to deliver care at a major hospital in Nairobi. The Kenyatta National Hospital was one of the last to join the strike, as workers there wanted to help emergency patients and hoped the government would quickly give in to union demands.Wealthy politicians routinely seek care in other countries. Now, Kenyans are crossing the border to Uganda for health care. This temporary solution is unsustainable, as Uganda does not have the resources to care for Kenya’s large population, nor can Kenyan agriculturists frequently make the journey to another country for health care.
Negotiations with union leaders are not going well. Kenyan courts have ordered the union to send its members back to work, and Judge Hellen Wasiliwa has threatened to have the strike’s leaders arrested. Meanwhile, the union claims that private hospitals will refuse to see patients starting Tuesday, leaving the nation’s wealthier citizens unable to avoid the crisis. They also claim that the government has repeatedly refused to meet their demands or honor promises. With neither the medical union nor the government showing any signs of backing down, it’s unclear what will happen to sick and injured Kenyans in the coming weeks.