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Who needs a doc? Kenyans survive on herbs and prayers

What do you mean doctors are on strike? How can doctors be on strike? How callous can people who are trained to treat leave the sick dying in hospitals? Should doctors worry more about money or about patients?

The questions are endless. The questions are meant to make doctors look uncaring or hungry for money. These questions don’t seek to reach the heart of the problem: what is the right compensation for a woman or man who dedicates her or his time all day long to attend to sick Kenyans, sometimes in clinics or wards where there are hardly the basics of medical care?

Who needs a doctor when Kenyans survive on prayers and herbs? We are a country of herbalists, relying on leaves, roots, and barks to treat our illnesses. When flora fails, we look unto the sky and beseech the Grand Patriarch upstairs to look at us favourably. Should he not be quick to listen and attend to our needs, we freely consult the spirits of the departed.

This is why not many Kenyans understand the demands by doctors for better pay. But on this one, Kenya’s press has remained focused on the story. Reading all the dailies, watching TV, and listening to radio, one gets the feeling that the media is committed to carrying this story to its conclusion.

Yet, the story of the young graduate doctors who need to serve fellow Kenyans for at least a year to be fully registered as professional doctors is an old one. And it is not just about doctors. It is about the respect that Kenya should have for thousands of young people it trains at a high cost every year but does not know what to do with them after they graduate. Out there are countless teachers, nurses, engineers, lawyers, journalists, accountants, among others, with qualifications but no jobs.

The plight of the young interns is just the tip of an iceberg, to use a cliché. Even if these freshly minted doctors were to work pro bono, as some politicians and bureaucrats are suggesting, they would still encounter endless hardships in the hospitals. They would struggle with old or outdated equipment. They might prescribe medication that patients cannot find in government hospital pharmacies. They would recommend patients for admission to crowded wards. They might not have adequate support staff. After all, aren’t our nurses being urged to look for work abroad?

How will the young doctors pay rent, travel to and from work, eat, dress, and afford other needs of Sh70,000 today when the cost of living is rising every day? Considering that some of them might not find time to do any other work that might earn an extra income, what is realistically a living wage for them? Some of these doctors will be on call for 24 hours almost the whole week given that many parts of this country hardly have doctors in government hospitals. What incentive would be there for the young doctors to commit their time and efforts to treat poor patients in government hospitals?

By keeping the story alive, Kenya’s media is doing great service to the public. An absolute majority of Kenyans seek treatment in government hospitals. Indeed, the many referral hospitals in the counties should offer the best medical care. In many parts of this country, government health centres are nearest to ordinary Kenyans. These centres are mostly staffed by clinical officers and nurses. Some of the bigger ones hardly have enough doctors. The interns are always a big relief in such situations. So, a stalemate such as the current one can only lead to more suffering for Kenyans who depend on government health services.

Whatever form the story takes in the media, the continued reporting could potentially lead to a cure for this old malady. By highlighting the strike by the doctors, Kenyans might find reasons to talk about what is ailing our health system, how to train and retain health workers in the country, how to manage our healthcare system, how to pay for healthcare, how much to invest in public health and medical services etcetera.

In the end, the media has to constantly remind the government, the doctors and the public (patients) that the problem of health is a collective one and should be treated asap like Sunday Nation did in its page 2 story, “The doctors’ strike: Never-ending wars and how ministers navigated protests.”

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