Kenya’s Health Crisis Deepens as Council of Governors Set to Punish Striking Doctors

Council of Governors Chairperson Anne Waiguru during a special sitting of governors on April 16.

The Council of Governors announced decisive disciplinary measures against striking health workers across the country on Tuesday, April 16, escalating tensions in an ongoing standoff that has already seen drastic actions such as the firing of 60 doctors in Nyeri last week.

During a critical meeting addressing the ongoing labour unrest in the country's health sector, Council of Governors Chairperson Anne Waiguru pointed out the severity of the situation.

"As we await the court's decision tomorrow, it is clear that health workers have not adhered to court orders, and hence we are compelled to institute disciplinary actions," Waiguru stated.

The extraordinary session comes in response to a directive from the national government, urging striking doctors to negotiate directly with their respective county administrations. 

This resolution aligns with actions taken by Nyeri Governor Mutahi Kahiga, who last week terminated the employment of dozens of doctors following their refusal to return to work. Other Governors from Kilifi, Tharaka Nithi, Kisumu, and Kiambu ordered their doctors to return to work or face the boot.

While drawing the line on the sand for doctors, the governors highlighted the potential financial implications should the state concede to demands for the implementation of the contentious 2017 Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). "This would inevitably impact all civil servants, necessitating increased budget allocations for counties," explained a statement read by Waiguru.

A group of governors led by Governor Waiguru addressing the media after a special sitting, April 16.

The governors further pointed out the substantial salary disparities within the health sector, noting that a senior medical officer at the county level earns Ksh479,000, which is considerably higher than the earnings of their counterparts in non-health public sectors and the private health sector.

In their statement, the governors noted, "County governments have continually improved terms for doctors where senior superintendent doctors earn up to Ksh479,000. Any review of salaries will require additional allocation."

The Council maintained that the collective approach suggested by the judiciary to resolve these disputes was unrealistic given the independent nature of county and national government employment terms.

The Governor also drew attention to the broader impacts of the strike, which has not only left many Kenyans without essential health services but has also continued for over a month, exacerbating the situation. 

"As duty bearers, we cannot remain passive while our people suffer – and sometimes die – because essential service providers like doctors have abandoned their posts," she asserted.

To illustrate the ongoing investment in the health sector, Waiguru mentioned that 890 health professionals, including doctors, pharmacists, and dentists, are currently sponsored by various counties for postgraduate training. Despite this substantial financial outlay, these counties continue to pay salaries to the trainees, further straining local healthcare budgets.

The unions representing physicians and clinical officers declared combined weekly protests on Monday in an effort to press their demands.

Three unions—the Kenya National Union of Medical Laboratory Officers (KNUMLO), the Kenya Union of Clinical Officers (KUCO), and the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union (KMPDU)—spoke to the media in Nairobi yesterday. They announced that the protests, which are scheduled to take place every Tuesday, are in response to the government's purported attempts to put an end to the ongoing nationwide healthcare workers' strike.

The unions explicitly refuted assertions made by Inspector General of Police Japheth Koome, affirming the necessity and legality of their protests.

Meanwhile, Health Cabinet Secretary Susan Nakhumincha indicated that the government is on the verge of brokering a deal to resolve the ongoing strike, which today marked its 36th day. The proposed agreement according to Nakhumincha is imminent.

Medical doctors participating in a strike on April 9, 2024
Medical doctors participating in a strike on April 9, 2024
George Oyunge