Kenyan health professionals—nurses, medical technicians, pharmacists—are on strike. Predictably, the newspapers are featuring stories of the many patients who are dying because of the strike. Health professionals, we are told, lack compassion. Crass materialists, they dare to put their own material comforts above the urgent needs of the most vulnerable: sick women and children. The claims are familiar, uttered in similar tones during the doctors’ strike in 2011.
I prefer not to simplify complex situations, but polemics have their uses.
During the doctors’ strike, we learned about their labor conditions: they worked in under-funded, equipment-deprived conditions catering to massive populations. Their hours were long and their compensation poor. These issues compound: overworked doctors lacking proper equipment and medication can only improvise for so long. At some point, ingenuity gives way to exhaustion, innovation to depression, experimentation to despair.
Poor labor conditions create material and affective obstacles.
Doctors detailed what it felt like to watch patients die. Kenyans tend to downplay psychic life: we know how to mourn at funerals and how to be angry at politicians, but we are very bad at discussing depression and discouragement, at thinking about the affective life of our labor conditions. And so, when doctors discussed how it felt to watch patients die, we ignored them, spoke of service and duty, claimed that they needed to show up, as though showing up is enough to compensate for the absence of resources.
Doctors said: patients die when we show up because we don’t have resources to treat them. We said show up anyway, refusing to appreciate what it means to watch patients die. To borrow from my pal at Roxie’s World, we demanded excellence without money.
Worse, the mainstream media led the demand for excellence without money. Medical professionals who did not show up caused death. While the presence and expertise of medical professionals *might* prevent death, this *might* becomes ever more precarious without proper resources. And it is a terrible thing to believe that health professionals should go to work to watch patients die.
We learned, also, that doctors were dying: they could not afford the services they were supposed to provide to others. They were also casualties of a system that lacked resources. Doctors could not save themselves.
In response to the recent strike, the government has sacked 25,000 health professionals, including nurses. Excellence without money has been supplemented by excellence without personnel. Apparently, retirees and interns can perform the job of trained health professionals.
Whereas health care professionals are insisting that the material conditions of labor matter for patients and those who provide care, the government is insisting that material conditions do not matter: health professionals should be magicians and professional mourners, able to effect cures without resources and to prepare the sick to approach death.
Regrettably, I am not surprised that the government ignores the recommendations of health professionals. I am not surprised that the government stands by and watches Kenyans die because it refuses to provide resources. I am not surprised that politicians who regularly increase their perks do not believe that Kenyan workers deserve fair labor conditions. I am not surprised that the government stands by while Kenyans die.
Predictably, the government is aided by a mainstream media that ignores the patients who die because of inadequate resources and chastises health professionals for refusing to watch over the dying.
Practically, the government has abrogated its responsibility to create conditions that allow Kenyans to thrive. Comprised of the 0.5%, the government will watch Kenyans die during an election year and do nothing. I suspect that the strike will not last long. I suspect that the health professionals will be forced to return to work. I suspect that, as before, they will watch patients die as those in the government award themselves generous raises and stipends.
The Kenyan government: killing Kenyans, one strike at a time.