Kenya’s Striking Doctors Sign Deal, Return to Work Amid Mounting Death Tolls

Public sector doctors in Kenya ended their 100-day strike after defying President Uhuru Kenyatta’s order on March 7 demanding that they resume work. On March 14, leaders of the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union (KMPDU) reached a deal with the government that aims to address their grievances, Al Jazeera reports. The government retaliated against the union on March 8, firing 12 doctors and putting 48 others on notice at Kenyatta National Hospital, the country’s largest hospital. The continued strike increased pressure on Kenyatta’s government ahead of the general election in August. The strikes began in December when KMPDU, a union of 5,000 members, called on the government to implement a 2013 collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that would give public doctors a 150 to 180 percent pay raise, Al Jazeera reports. The agreement also called for a review of working conditions and criteria for promotions and updated equipment. According to Voice of America (VOA), the lowest paid Kenyan public doctors currently make roughly $400 USD per month while the highest paid receive $5,000 monthly.

Prior to the resolution, union leader Dr. George Got remained optimistic that the government would cooperate, although it remains unclear how many of the union’s original demands were actually met. While the proposed resolution remains confidential, the Standard reports that it included 12 points, including a provision that would prevent striking doctors from being punished upon their return to work. KMPDU General Secretary Ouma Oluga expressed support for the agreement, saying that one of the agreement’s biggest achievements is that doctors will now work only 40 hours per week and will be compensated for hours beyond that. Previously, doctors were on call at all times.

However, the strike took a deadly toll, leaving millions without healthcare. For example, the Kenya Cancer Association has reported an average of three deaths per week since the beginning of a the strike, an increase of 50 percent from last year. The strike has also impeded the efficacy of emergency medical services. VOA interviewed Judy Nabwani, a Kenyan woman whose son was hit by a speeding car. He was taken to a public hospital but all of its doctors were on strike, so arrangements were made to transfer him to a private hospital. The boy died waiting for transportation to the second hospital.

“It is regrettable that it took so long. Kenyans have suffered.... We cannot fathom the extent of pain which Kenyans felt in the 100 days,” said Health Minister Cleopa Mailu. Private hospitals continued to operate but are an unrealistic alternative for many Kenyans as they are more expensive than the public hospitals.

Dissatisfaction with the lack of access to healthcare continues to grow as the union persists. A survey by Ipsos conducted in January found that 65 percent of Kenyans wanted doctors to end the strike and return to work.

A case involving the doctors’ return to work has been ongoing at the Court of Appeals, where KMPDU leaders appeared on March 13 before the strike was resolved the following day. A court ruled in December that the strike was illegal but suspended union leaders’ sentencing to allow for negotiations between the union and the government.