Strike cripples health services

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Limpho Sello

THE ongoing indefinite nationwide strike by health workers has left patients stranded and brought the health delivery system to a virtual standstill.

The health workers have bandied together under the banner of Coalition of Health Professionals. The Coalition includes doctors, nurses, pharmacists and nursing assistants. They began their strike on Monday to protest the government’s failure to address their demands for Coronavirus (Covid-19) risk allowances and personal protective equipment (PPEs) to shield them from the deadly virus.

The health professionals went on strike despite Health Minister Motlatsi Maqelepo’s weekend threats to sanction them if they did not abandon what he said would be an illegal job action.

The coalition’s spokesperson Mojakisane Ramafikeng said Mr Maqelepo called them to a meeting on Tuesday to plead with them to go back to work.

He, however, said Mr Maqelepo “did not put anything on the table for us to consider abandoning the strike”.

“We were called to a meeting on Tuesday but the minister had nothing to offer. So, we will continue protecting ourselves (by striking) until the government addresses our demands.

“We are not abandoning our patients but we are simply protecting ourselves from the risk of being infected by Covid-19. We are also protecting the same people (patients) from getting infected by us because we cannot attend to them without protective clothing. We care about our patients.

“The people who do not care about the patients are those in government. They find it difficult to address our grievances so that we can go back to work,” Dr Ramafikeng said.

Repeated efforts to obtain comment from Mr Maqelepo were unsuccessful as he did not answer his mobile phone or respond to messages. The workers have since written to Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro to address their grievances.

The strike comes at a time when Covid-19 infections are increasing at an exponential rate. As of yesterday, the country had recorded 256 Covid infections and three deaths.

Our news crews visited several hospitals and health centres in Maseru, including Queen Mamohato Memorial Hospital (QMMH), the country’s only referral hospital, since the strike began on Monday.

Pathetic scenes obtained at the various institutions as visibly ill patients were left stranded by the strike. At QMMH and other centres, medical personnel simply stood at the entrances of their work places while patients waited in vain to be attended to.

Other facilities visited by this publication include the Qoaling Filter Clinic, Loreto Health Centre (Qoaling), Likotsi Filter Clinic (Thetsane), Mohlomi Hospital (Lepereng), the Maseru City Council clinics in Khubetsoana and Ha-Thamae, Ratjomose LDF Clinic (Lower Thetsane) and Queen Elizabeth II facility (Lakeside).

Apparently unmoved by the plight of patients, some medical practitioners at these centres even locked themselves in their work rooms and advised patients to go back home without being attended to.

This publication observed many patients leaving the facilities without getting any help.

At Mohlomi Hospital, which caters for mentally challenges patients, the Lesotho Times crew arrived when the hospital’s manager, ‘Mampolai Tsemane, was addressing staffers in the afternoon.

“I have been given instructions by the Ministry of Health to tell you to go back to your work stations and resume work,” Ms Tsemane said.

“The names of those who will go back to work will be written down,” she added, much to the annoyance of the staffers.

One masked nurse shouted, “this is aimed at dividing us”. Despite Ms Tsemane’s pleas, the workers refused to have their names written down.

Ms Tsemane later told this publication her facility was severely hamstrung by the shortage of PPEs. She said her staffers were vulnerable to Covid-19 as they were constantly in physical contact with patients at the mental health facility. She said at times the staffers had to use physical force to restrain unruly patients.

But although they urgently needed PPEs, the shortage of such equipment should not be an excuse for the strike “because mental patients need to be looked after every minute of the day”.

“It is very risky for the staffers, patients and the public when patients with mental illness are left unattended. They (patients) cannot be left unattended under any circumstance because they are unpredictable and can get out of control any second. Some may even run away or hurt staffers,” Ms Tsemane said.

As this publication left the facility, it observed two young ladies who dejectedly sat at the hospital entrance after being denied permission to see their mother who is admitted at the facility. They had travelled 78 kilometres from Mafeteng to see her but could not do so due to the strike.

“We came to see our mother who was admitted last week. Our mother would have probably felt better just by seeing us. We pleaded our case with one of the nurses but we were unsuccessful. This is very painful,” said one of the ladies as she struggled to hold back tears.

At Domiciliary Health Centre, Mabote Filter Clinic and QMMH, patients were attended to at an extremely slow pace, suggesting that there was a go slow instead of a full-blown strike.

The three facilities are run by Tšepong Consortium under a controversial public-private-partnership agreement between the Lesotho government and the consortium.

Patients said they were told by the authorities to wait at the entrance of QMMH Tšepong. Those who had brought parcels for patients were told that there was no one to collect and deliver them to the patients. Some went back home with their parcels.  Some outpatients also left without being attended to.

Asked why they were just milling around instead of attending to patients, some nurses said they had initially planned to stay at home but only came to their work stations in case their managers would have updates from the government regarding their grievances.

“As you can see, we are standing here doing nothing. It means we are protecting ourselves and these poor patients from Covid-19,” one of the QMMH staffers said to choruses of approval from her colleagues.

QMMH’s public relations officer Mothepane Thahane said striking during a pandemic was “against the ethos of essential service providers”.

She said QMMH and its filter clinics had provided their staffers with PPEs to protect them from Covid-19 and it was therefore “unfortunate” that they had still gone on strike.

“As for the risk allowances they demanded, the hospital has put that issue before the Ministry of Health and their health professionals’ associations. This means that the issue will be addressed. They do not need to abandon their jobs which are highly essential and needed at this critical time,” Ms Thahane said.

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