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Sunday, September 19, 2021

Faceoff between the state and the nurses: Can it be averted?

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By The Watchman

I have learnt from a very reliable source that a faceoff between the State (through the Ministry of Health) and the National Association of Gambian Nurses and Midwives is imminent. This cannot augur well for the population, especially at this challenging time of COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, every effort must be made to avert it. What is the genesis of this problem and how can it be resolved?

In May of this year, the National Association of Gambian Nurses and Midwives held a series of negotiations with the Office of the Secretary General and Head of the Civil Service on the issue of the payment of their allowances (risk allowance, on-call allowance, special allowance). The meetings bore fruit when the nurses were told to give the government time to complete computations of these allowances so it could be done properly. All parties agreed that the payments would commence in August 2021. 

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The Office of the Secretary General then wrote a letter to both the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Finance authorizing them to begin paying these allowances by August 2021. In June, an email was sent to the Permanent Secretary Ministry of Health to remind them of the agreement. He replied the next day to say that they (MoH) were working on it. 

On 24 August 2021, the Ministry of Health sent a letter to the National Association of Gambian Nurses and Midwives requesting another grace period of one month to complete the computations and pay the allowances. I have seen a letter, which replied to that plea of MoH, rejecting this request. The reply of the nurses further pointed out that between May 11 and August 24 is 100 days, enough to do any computations had they been serious and concerned about the health of the population and welfare of the nurses.

The National Association of Gambian Nurses and Midwives is threatening to go on a sit-down strike from 1 September 2021 if their allowances are not paid by 31 August. It is fair to say that the nurses have been patient and steadfast enough and that the Ministry of Health should have made serious efforts to pay these allowances by now. If therefore their demands are not met and they go on a strike the consequences thereof will squarely be on the shoulders of the Ministry of Health.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to justify the lack of payment of the allowances of the nurses considering the important role nurses play in the healthcare sector of the country. In fact, nurses are indispensable and anyone who has even a rudimentary understanding of healthcare delivery can understand that without nurses the entire sector will collapse leading to devastating consequences.

It has now emerged that the top echelon at the Ministry of Health seem to more concerned with how much they can earn for themselves than the welfare of nurses and the health of the population. A report of the Malagen online newspaper published on August 27 alleges that, “… the ministry made reported excess expenditure of at least $1.2m (approx. D62.7m) and $565, 827 (approx. D28m) from the purchase and transportation of the medical items, respectively. This totals up to D90m, more than the annual budgetary allocation of ministries of information and tourism combined.”

It is not clear what really went on in that saga – or what the State will do about it -but it is evident that had the ministry been serious about the welfare of the nurses, and concerned about the Gambian population they would not have been unable to take care of these allowances. I tried reaching officials at the ministry via email but could not get any response until at the time of going to press. That is another problem at this particular ministry, they hardly reply to email enquiries.

It will be devastating if, during these times of rising coronavirus transmissions and the alarming increase in the number of deaths being reported, the healthcare sector were to be shut down for that is what a general sit-down of the nurses will cause. Both parties are therefore urged to return to the negotiating table so that we can avoid the unnecessary loss of lives.

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