NAIROBI — A Kenyan court Monday imprisoned seven top officials from the doctors’ union after they refused to call off strike that has paralyzed the nation’s health system for the past two months.
With more than 5,000 doctors striking for higher pay and expanded staff, the already dilapidated public health system has all but collapsed and private hospitals have been inundated. The government has already linked several deaths to the strike of those too poor to pay for health care.
But authorities faced immediate backlash after the court ruling, which was handed down at Nairobi’s Milimani Law Courts by Judge Hellen Wasilwa. She found the union officials in contempt of court after they refused an order to end the strike and sentenced them to a month in prison.
A Twitter hashtag #HealthcrisisKe became a collection point for anger over the sentences and frustration at the state of Kenya’s health care system, which was once considered among the best in East Africa.
The union is demanding a 300 percent salary increase based on an agreement signed between the doctors and the government in June 2013. The current lowest salary (with bonuses) for doctors is $1,200.
Yet despite agreeing to the raise earlier, the government is now refusing to implement the agreement, saying it is not in line with guidelines for public service salaries.
“The government has been considerate toward the plight of doctors, but what their union is seeking is not within the framework of the public service,” said Health Secretary Cleopa Mailu in a news conference a month ago.
The doctors have halted all talks with the government pending the release of their officials.
The contentious agreement between the ministry and the union covered several issues, including working conditions, promotions, transfers and pay
It also calls for the Health Ministry to hire at least 1,200 doctors annually for the next four years to address Kenya’s dire doctor-patient ratio.
Last month, President Uhuru Kenyatta instead offered the union an across the board salary increase of 40 percent, if they would end the strike. The doctors refused.
Already back in December, Kenyatta said that 20 people had died due to the strike.
Most Kenyans cannot afford private health care. A nurse at Kenyatta National Hospital said the situation was dire.
“So many people are dying — we have emergencies but there is nothing we can do,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect her job. “There was someone who died recently because he kept moving from one public hospital to another for desperately needed dialysis.”
In private hospitals, some patients are even being detained for nonpayment of bills.
The medical strike has emboldened other unions for press for higher pay.
In late January, Kenya’s university lecturers went on a nationwide strike, a move that has paralyzed education sector in the country. The lecturers who were joined by nonteaching staff in all public universities in Kenya.