'Nakhumicha must go', protesting intern doctors say as postings remain elusive

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The protest drew significant public support, highlighting widespread frustration with the state where the country's healthcare system is concerned. 

Medics staged a protest outside Aftya House in Nairobi on Monday, dubbed "Occupy Ministry of Health," to demand the posting of medical interns and the exit of Cabinet Secretary Susan Nakhumicha, citing numerous failures by the government.

The medical profession is revered as a noble calling, with students dedicating countless hours to achieve the high grades needed for the rigorous six-year programme, but many said on Monday that they had been jobless for years.

Speaking to The Eastleigh Voice, some interns, who wished to remain anonymous, shared their frustrations.

Anna*, who graduated in 2022 from Malaysia and completed her board exams, said she has gone through "all the stages of depression".

"If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have pursued medicine. After all the high costs and long hours, here we are, frustrated for years, begging to be posted to practice what we’ve learned. Some of us are even losing the knowledge we acquired because we can’t use it anywhere."

She further noted that studying medicine is so demanding that most of them don’t develop other skills.

"When you’ve studied medicine, the expectations are extremely high, both at home and in the community. The worst part has been the continuous disappointments, which have stopped many from looking for jobs because they keep saying ‘next month’ and never fulfil the promise," she said.

"My parents are equally depressed and frustrated because of the long wait. By now, we should be independent but we are forced to keep relying on them, which is very draining."

"Subjects of ridicule"

*Sharon said her parents were so frustrated that they refused to let her look for any other job after investing millions in her studies.

"As much as I feel the pain, my parents are even more frustrated. They believe I trained to be a doctor, and that’s what I should be. The worst part is the constant promises," she said, adding that social stigma makes matters worse.

"We have become subjects of ridicule, which is very painful for us, our parents, and even our siblings. The worst part is that they keep pushing us with no regard for our situation."

She also raised concerns about being unable to find work elsewhere due to a lack of licenses and the growing gaps in their resumes, as many employers are hesitant to hire people without good experience.

*Felix said the internship crisis must be resolved as the number of those awaiting posting keeps growing., with two batches of graduates currently unemployed.

"If interns are not posted, we will face a greater crisis because more doctors are graduating this year and will still need placement," he said, adding that it was regrettable that the government had the numbers but was not taking action.

"Many interns are depressed and hopeless. Many come from poor backgrounds and their families rely on them to provide solutions, which is slowly taking a toll on them."

Medical interns pose for a picture during a protest outside Afya House, where the Health ministry's offices are located, on July 8, 2024. (Photo: Charity Kilei/EV)

A firm resolve

The protest drew significant public support, highlighting widespread frustration with the state where the country's healthcare system is concerned.

Peterson Wachira, the national chairperson for the Kenya Union of Clinical Officers (KUCO), said, "The interns have been discriminated against by the ministry. Some have been out for more than a year, heading towards two years. These individuals have finished school, have their certificates, and yet they cannot practice."

Wachira added that completing an internship is a prerequisite for obtaining a license so delaying this process prevents them from finding employment as doctors.

"We, the clinical officers, have been off strike for 99 days, and the CS for Health has not called us even once for a roundtable discussion to understand our issues," he said, noting that this was the first time in history that facilities were facing problems with internships.

"Hospitals are suffering because they don't have interns who provide essential services due to the shortage of health workers in the country."

Wachira encouraged the interns to camp at the ministry daily until their plea was heard.

"We want the interns to camp here as they would have reported to work until the ministry posts them. We are experiencing a series of failures in this ministry. The CS must either shape up or ship out."

Medical workers, among them intern doctors, during a protest outside Afya House, where the Health ministry's offices are located, on July 8, 2024. (Photo: Charity Kilei/EV)

Support from other Kenyans

Kenyans in other professions also registered support for the medical workers, among them Calvin Karam, a lawyer who joined the protest.

Karam said the demonstration was not solely about doctors's grievances, including low pay, but reflected broader concerns about the healthcare system affecting all Kenyans.

"There are no medicines in hospitals and the mismanagement of funds in the health sector is terrible. It is time we, as the young generation, came out to defend the rest of Kenyans," Karam stated, adding that access to adequate healthcare services is a fundamental right.

Regarding elected leaders, he said, "They are not in the positions to lead us but rather to serve us. If they are incompetent, we want them out."

Among the notable figures supporting the protest was comedian Marcus Douglas, who stressed that the dysfunctional healthcare system affects every Kenyan, regardless of social status.

"We want a system that works for everyone, from the rich to the poor. We must stick together," said Douglas.

Maina Munene, another stand-up comedian, also lent his voice to the protest, advocating for the immediate posting of intern doctors and a total overhaul of the healthcare system.

"It is unacceptable that there are no vaccines for newborns around the country. It is also unacceptable that the doctor-to-patient ratio has not been respected. We are also here to call for accountability from the government," Munene added.

Participants pose for a picture during a medical workers' protest outside Afya House, where the Health ministry's offices are located, on July 8, 2024. (Photo: Charity Kilei/EV)

Crucial sector

Hussein Khalid, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of VOCAL Africa, expressed his solidarity with the medical interns, highlighting the crucial role doctors have played in supporting anti-government protestors who have taken to the streets for four weeks now.

"The medical fraternity has been at the frontline, treating the injured and offering first aid in different towns. The least we can do is be there for them as they struggle to ensure the medical interns are posted as agreed in the 2017 Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA)," he said.

Earlier this year, doctors downed their tools for nearly two months, one of the key issues being the posting of interns.

The Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union (KMPDU), which represents over 7,000 members, initiated the strike on March 15 to demand the payment of salary arrears and the immediate hiring of trainee doctors, among other grievances.

KMPDU Secretary General Dhavji Atellah noted at the time that while the hiring of interns remained a pending issue in court, it was agreed that they would be posted within 60 days.

This latest protest comes as young people across the country stage marches in a demand for President William Ruto to resign, for reasons including excessive taxation, massive corruption, a high cost of living, a high unemployment rate, and the lack of basic services.

Thus far, the protests have forced the president to withdraw the Finance Bill of 2024 which proposed higher taxes as part of Ruto's strategy for lowering Kenya's foreign debt.

Unfulfilled pledges

Since early March, medical workers have gone on strike due to the government's failure to post the interns and the health ministry's non-adherence to the 2017 Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).

The latest strike by the KMPDU, which ended in mid-May, lasted 56 days. After a series of meetings, the strike was called off by the KMPDU, with the ministry promising to resolve the issues. The union and the government agreed on 60 days for further discussions. However, the ministry has yet to fulfil its promises.

Last week, the KMPDU issued a notice informing the government of another strike scheduled for Monday, July 8.

The lack of basic services like healthcare is one of the reasons for protest calls for President William Ruto's resignation.

In an X Space engagement with the public last week, Ruto pledged to resolve the stalemate concerning intern doctors and address doctors' salary arrears.

The head of state elaborated on healthcare reforms undertaken by the government but his promises remain unfulfilled, prompting actions such as the medical graduates' street protest.

The Ministry of Health, headed by Cabinet Secretary Susan Nakhumicha, has yet to address the issue.

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