Emily Spry: The strike continues

Pikin HospitalAfter 11 days, the total strike of all government healthcare workers in Sierra Leone has finally been elevated to a BBC World Service African news headline.

Yesterday, the President called all the doctors and nurses to a meeting in a room at the Stadium.

I was also indirectly invited, but decided that it would be better to stay away.

As you know, I’m entirely sympathetic of the doctors and nurses, although I do very much regret the suffering the strike is inflicting on those poor people who rely on public healthcare.  The Welbodi Partnership has always said that staff must be paid appropriately as an essential part of any attempt to improve healthcare here.  It’s common sense that nurses cannot work for the Government in any meaningful way when they are not paid enough to cover their transport costs to and from work.

At the same time, we are only able to work in a Government Hospital because of the approval and cooperation of said Government.  I was very keen to avoid being asked to come out for one side or the other in a public meeting!

The meeting took things back to square one.  The President’s exhortations and promises did not impress the health workers; they did not even applaud him, which seems like quite a statement in a country where people respect their elders.  They rejected his pleas to call off the strike and go back to work.

The strike has apparently also spread “upline” (a lovely phrase left over from the days of the railway, decades ago) to the towns and villages outside of Freetown.

The good news is that yesterday we managed to transfer the last three babies from our bizarre temporary ward at the private hospital.  These children were those left behind in Children’s Hospital after the strike was called.  They were too sick to go home, so a few volunteers ended up looking after them.

Yesterday, I once again prevailed upon the professionalism and humanity of the wonderful Lieutenant Colonel Foday Sahr, who runs the Military Hospital in Freetown.  Although packed to the rafters with those who would normally be treated in the public hospitals, he and his staff agreed to take the three babies and one very anaemic mother.

The small Paediatric ward and Maternity unit at the Military Hospital left a strong impression.  The nurses and doctors are present, proactive and communicative; the wards are clean, tidy and organised.

I’m sure that there are many factors contributing to this; the Hospital is resourced directly by the Ministry of Defence, the staff organised in the strictly hierarchical command structure of the military etc.  But they also have a great leader – knowledgeable, kindly and determined to improve the services the Hospital provides.

I am going back to the UK tonight for a week.  It seems a rather frivolous jaunt in some ways but after 8 months away, it is also very welcome.  I’m going to meet my first godson (born in September – he has been patient, as have his parents!), read a decent newspaper, drink real milk and help my sister celebrate her 30th birthday. And I’m going to bring back a lot of parmesan.

“Wi go si back Freetong” (See you later Freetown).

Emily Spry is a doctor from London who has taken a year out of her General Practice Specialty Training Programme to live and work in Sierra Leone, West Africa. She is working for the Welbodi Partnership, a charity which supports the main government Children’s Hospital in a country where more than one quarter of children die before their fifth birthday.