I put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) in response to brother Madi Jobarteh’s passionate support of Gambia’s striking junior doctors. Madi’s thesis in support of the doctors’ strike has moved beyond the specific complaint about the Health Minister’s utterances, but I would like to start with my brief comments here last week before I look at Madi’s two main points.
My comments last week were as follows:
“The Minister’s statement was bound to offend. But now the Minister has gracefully apologised in clear and unambiguous words. I now urge our professional doctors to equally gracefully accept that ministerial apology humbly offered and return to caring for their patients”.
Madi Jobarteh supports the doctor’s strike actions on two grounds:
- That the doctors’ have a “constitutional right to protest”;
- In Madi’s own words that “It is not until these doctors went on strike that we have seen the Gambia Government now speak a language of solving the issues in the health sector. Thus without this action it is clear that the Government will take a long-time, if ever at all to focus on and address the issues in our health system.
Madi’s first point first. Approaching the matter from a long held personal principle, I will state that a “right to protest” does not necessarily mean strike action that would seriously impinge on other people’s rights and well being. I grew up in a school in Nairobi that is famous for its discipline (Starehe School which Gambia’s own current Chief Justice did visit as Attorney General in the 1980s). The lawlessness and disorder that characterises Kenyan schools was and still is anathema at Starehe. Ten years after Starehe, I was a teacher in a London school when the staff decided to strike against Mrs. Thatcher – with the children’s education as the “collateral damage”. I pleaded with my colleagues, in vain, that we should take it in shifts to protest every evening infront of Parliament or 10 Downing Street but to no avail. The strike went ahead, I ignored it for the whole week and came to teach – and got thrown out of the National Union of Teachers! That was 30 years ago. To my mind, today’s striking Gambian doctors would have more sympathy from the general public if they protested and demonstrated about their grievances without impacting the well-being of their patients through a working hours strike.
A “protest” may indeed be a constitutional right as Madi states, but strikes are forbidden in critical services where the lives of fellow citizens is put at risk (I understand that death rates at Gambian hospitals have spiked as a result of the current strike). UK soldiers and police officer have no right to strike – and I am sure Madi would not suggest that Gambian soldiers and police officers have a “constitutional right to strike”. Here in UK junior doctors went on strike in 2016 and a debate ensued whether or not a law should be passed to ensure that doctors never strike – no action has been taken yet. Similarly, the London Fire Brigade went on strike a few years ago – and one dreads to think what would happen if another Grenfell Tower fire happened during a strike. I would argue that the military, the police, doctors and fire service should have no right to strike at all during their working hours – though I see no problem with protests and demonstrations that do not interfere with service to the community in anyway.
Madi’s second point can be taken shortly. Firstly, it was infact the Minister’s statement expressing, in rather unfortunate terms, the government’s determination to deal with the problems in the health sector that caused the doctors resentment and the ensuing strike. So it is not true for Madi to say that the problems would not have been addressed without the doctors’ strike. Secondly, a prolonging of this strike is more likely to make things worse in the health sector if relationships between the young doctors and the hospitals’ management (and the Health Ministry) break down. There is also the possibility that every little disagreement in the health sector will henceforth be dealt with through a strike – similar to the one that the doctors are engaged in now. One could also wonder whether doctors would continue to be committed to what would become hostile hospital environments – or will we lose doctors that have been trained for many years at enormous cost to the country?
In my humble view, the doctors’ professional calling requires a non-striking environment in which doctors are well respected, listened to carefully – and highly paid.