Doctors in Egypt threaten to go back on strike
Doctors march in their white coats on the Cabinet demanding better wages and a higher health care budget after the prime minister's assurances to address their grievances yield no results
Salma Shukrallah , Monday 30 May 2011
Hundreds of doctors marched on Sunday from the doctors’ syndicate to the Egyptian Cabinet offices with their unmet demands and chanting against Minister of Health Ashraf Hatem and the head of the medical syndicate, Hamdy El-Sayed.
“A minimum wage and a maximum wage should be set,” chanted the doctors as they marched wearing their white coats through the streets of Cairo. Carrying banners that read: “High wages for doctors means better health care for patients,” they chanted “these are not sectoral demands, these are not selfish demands, we are demanding social justice.”
“If a relative of yours is ill would you send him to a public hospital if you can afford sending him elsewhere? Would you not rather send him to be treated abroad?” asked Dr Imitiaz Khald Hassouna, an ophthalmologist from Alexandria. “I came all the way from Alexandria at my own cost to make sure I attend this demonstration. The Egyptian citizen deserves better health care,” added Hassouna.
The demonstration was made up of doctors representing several governorates, explained Hassouna. The demonstration, however, does not represent all the doctors partaking in the strike or supporting it, but only a sample.
The doctors that had staged a one day strike on 10 May and started an open ended strike a week later, on 17 May. That was suspended after promises were made by the ministry, which the doctors claim have not been fulfilled.
The demands included raising the health care budget from 3 per cent of the state budget to 15 per cent, increasing the wages of all health workers, securing hospital staff against attacks and subsidising medical higher education.
Although the Cabinet had promised the doctors that demands will be met, they circumvented the main demands, according to Dr Ayat Ahmed Sadiq who is currently finishing her compulsory year in Fayoum.
“They said the health budget will be raised to 11-12 per cent but then we learnt that this percentage is planned to cover all hospitals including those that are already subsidised by monthly salaries such as health insurance companies or military hospitals. Prime Minister Essam Sharaf also said that he is not in a position to change the minister of health as we demanded… how is that possible if he is the prime minister?” exclaimed Sadiq.
The demand to remove the current health minister is related to what Hassouna described as his “National Democratic Party policies towards health care.”
“The policies which maintain low doctor wages in public hospitals are intentionally set to serve the profit making private sector. Public hospitals are now utilised for private patients,” said Hassouna. “The capitalist system does not work when it comes to health care. They removed cancer and delicate surgeries from the health insurance so now if I get cancer I cannot receive the health care I will need,” she added.
To echo this sentiment, the doctors chanted: “The doctors and the workers are against the power of capital”.
Safety seems to be another major issue facing the protesting doctors. One doctor, using a loud speaker, said that neither the police nor the army work to protect hospitals which are attacked by thugs on daily basis. “Doctors are sometimes forced to work with a knife held to their backs,” he said.
“The [strike] committee is considering staging a strike every Tuesday of the week until demands are met”, said Dr Mohamed Mansoury.
Dr Ahmed Fathi went as far as confirm that the committee organizing the strikes has already decided to hold one next Tuesday (31 May).
Fathi added that in addition to the demands put forth, the committee is focusing on corruption within the ministry of health. “We have filed a corruption complaint against the ministry for providing the Fact Finding Committee with a false estimate of the number of deaths during the revolution. The number accurately estimated for the number of revolution martyrs was 846 but they declared that there were only 400. The corruption complaint also include waste of public funds.”
The demonstrators also held banners reading “we demand trials, the gangs are still ruling” and “the enemies of the revolution are those behind the shortage of medical supplies.”
Interim Prime Minister Essam Sharaf on 17 May, the day of the second and open-ended strike, made assurances, after meeting with the Strike Committee, that all the demands would be met or at least considered. Among his promises was a pledge that between 10 to 13 per cent of the annual budget would be allocated for health care. Consequently, the doctors had decided to freeze the strike.
Hamdy El-Sayed, head of the medical syndicate, had, from the onset of the strike, criticised the decision of the strike committee. He released a statement before 10 May in which he asked the doctors to "respect their duty."
Since industrial action was approved by the syndicate's General Assembly, doctors claim they have the right to punish those who refused to abide with the decision to strike, as stipulated in the syndicate's charter. Those who opposed the strike, and were blacklisted, include El-Sayed and Health Minister Ashraf Hatem.