On Tuesday Egyptian doctors began an open-ended nationwide strike after the government continued to ignore demands for better working conditions and salaries.
Stepping into Manshiet El-Bakry Hospital, a government-run hospital in Heliopolis, one finds a medical institution in disrepair. Rusting stretchers lay in front of broken-down elevators. In fact, the sole operating elevator, which one can say barely functions, had stalled for some time during the day. The hospital, however, was full of life as nurses and doctors divided themselves, some participating in the strike and sit-in while others tended to the intensive care units, emergency rooms and delivery rooms.
As Dr Nadia El-Ebissy qualified, “Anybody who could be attended to tomorrow or whose case wasn’t serious - there was no temperature, etc - we didn’t attend to. Births and emergency cases, however, we saw to.” She added that the strike covered the working hours of the clinic, which runs from 8:00am to 2:00pm.
As of 3:00pm, three children had been birthed in the hospital - one via Caesarean section. The Caesarean baby’s father, Essam Mohyuddin Mohamed, was very pleased with his daughter’s birth, whom he revealed would be named Yara.
Mohamed related his family's story: “We came yesterday night; my wife’s situation was a bit difficult, in fact it was a dangerous situation...Dr Hamdy [Mahmoud Idriss] stood by us and helped us through this difficult time. The staff here were excellent. Of course I had heard about the strikes from the television, but today, to be honest, I didn’t see any strike. There were more than three doctors attending to my wife; I didn’t feel like there was any strike.”
When asked if he was concerned about the strikes interfering with his baby girl’s birth, he jokingly stated, “I had my wife with me and she had to give birth; it was going to happen; where else would I go?”
Fatimah Abdullah Ali, a nurse at the hospital for 13 years who assisted with the birth, stated: “Mine was a normal day because the cases that come to us are emergency ones and we can’t turn them down, but we still have demands and we support the strike.”
Ali had to run off midway during the interview as she had patients to attend to, but before she left she made it clear that working conditions and salaries must change: “I earn LE0.95 ($0.16) during an 8:00am-8:00pm shift. The 95 piastres might have been sufficient in the 1950’s but not today. There haven’t been any increases since then.”
Nurses are few and far between, stated El-Ebissy, due to very low wages and they, like the doctors, have very poor health insurance. Nurse Fatimah stated that she earns LE343 ($58) per month.
Dr. Yehia Hassaan Ismail, Chief of the Anaesthetic Department at Manshiet El-Bakry Hospital, laid out the general demands quite simply.
“The strikes are an effort by the doctors to put pressure on the government so that it would respond to their demands; their demands aren’t very much; they’re all fair demands and can be achieved; 15 per cent of the national budget for health isn’t much and even if it were negotiated down to 10 per cent that’s good - much better than the 3.6 per cent we have now,” states Ismail.
The anaesthesiologist also focused on fairer distributions of hospital profits, which he believes could go a long way to solving the wage issues.
He admitted that due to the clinics general “congestion” from the number of people who can’t afford private hospitals but come to public ones for treatment, the strikes have and will cause some problems. The longer the strike extends the more the congestion will increase till the inevitable “explosion,” he believes.
Both he and Dr Nadia expressed sourness over having to resort to a strike. However, Ismail believes, the government should be more malleable for “this is a rich country, not a poor country, if only we started to organise properly and distribute resources fairly: you must consider that if you give benefits to the doctor for his/her efforts, then patients will also see a benefit as the doctor will treat them with more enthusiasm and so on. People will also benefit from better hospital beds, blankets and a more comfortable hospital stay in general.”
The nationwide strike that started on 17 May was supposed to continue for at least three days according to the high committee managing the strike.
Last night, the medics’ committee met with Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, walking out of the meeting seemingly satisfied with the results. The interim prime minister assured that all the demands would be met, or at the very least considered, affirming that 10 to 13 per cent of the annual budget would be allocated for the next national health care budget.
On the doctors' part, the strike has been frozen until 22 May as a good-faith gesture, since they feel, at least for now, that they are gaining ground. "We hope that in a year's time we will have a much better hospital for all of us," says El-Ebissy, "However, if we have to strike again to achieve this, we will not hesitate."