Wednesday, January 1, 2014Jano Charbel
Thousands of doctors began the year by launching a partial one-day strike across the country, in public hospitals and the Health Ministry’s medical facilities, to demand increased salaries for physicians and improved conditions for patients. The second day of the strike is slated for January 8.
For the first time in its history, the Pharmacists Syndicate officially joined in with the Doctors Syndicate in a strike. Nursing staff in numerous hospitals are also reported to have joined Wednesday’s strikes — although their union leaders have announced that nurses will not participate in any official capacity.
The doctors’ strike committee announced it would reveal new tactics and plans for escalation if need be, depending on the government’s response.
Estimates provided by the Doctors Syndicate strike committee suggest that an average of 80 percent of physicians at the Health Ministry’s hospitals participated in the first day of the strike. An estimated 70 percent of pharmacists are reported to have joined in this strike action.
Amr al-Shora, a leading board member of the Doctors’ Syndicate, told Mada Masr, “Based on what I personally witnessed, I estimate a participation rate in the strike of around 85 percent to 90 percent in hospitals around Cairo and Giza.”
Shora explained that more definitive figures would be compiled by the Doctors Syndicate strike committee on Wednesday evening.
“This is the first day of the strike,” he said. “It is meant to serve as a warning to the authorities regarding our demands. If they don’t heed our demands we will move towards an escalation.”
However, the Health Ministry has downplayed the strike and has issued figures suggesting that only 30 percent of public sector doctors participated in the work stoppage.
Shora said that the Health Ministry’s claims regarding the strike are “false,” explaining that ministry officials provided this estimate based on the number of patients who entered hospitals and sought medical attention.
The strike committee had announced at a press conference, held at the Doctors Syndicate on Tuesday, that the strike would not halt or affect operations in emergency rooms, urgent surgeries, incubators or other pressing medical needs.
Mona Mina, recently elected as secretary general of the syndicate and a leading member of the strike committee, said, “All doctors will be present at hospitals during the strike, regardless of whether they are striking or not.”
Mina explained that all critical and life-threatening medical conditions will be attended to during the strike.
She clarified that the doctors are embarking on professional strike — “This is not a political strike,” she said, adding that “our demands are exactly the same as they were during our previous strikes” over the past two years.
These demands include, raising the national health budget from its current level just below 4.5 percent (to around 15 percent of the national budget), raising doctors’ salaries (which average only a few hundred pounds per month,) ensuring the security of hospitals from assaults and from infectious diseases.
Speaking at Tuesday’s press conference, Khaled Samir said, “We don’t want doctors to exploit this strike for political ends or objectives. This is not an act of civil disobedience nor a political pressure tool.”
Nonetheless, officials from the Health Ministry have accused striking doctors of causing chaos, and of working in cahoots with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Some divisions and schisms were apparent even within the ranks of the striking doctors. During Tuesday’s press conference Amir al-Adl commented, “There is no place for the Muslim Brotherhood’s political maneuverings in the course of this strike.”
This comment was met with disapproval from bearded doctors, affiliated to the Brotherhood’s bloc, dubbed ‘Doctors For Egypt.’
A member of Doctors For Egypt bloc whose name is being withheld for security reasons said that in addition to the other strike demands, “We also demand the release of all wrongfully imprisoned doctors.”
The Brotherhood-led bloc claims that some 100 doctors have been jailed since the ouster of president Mohamed Morsi by the Armed Forces on July 3.
The Doctors For Egypt bloc had opposed strike action over the past two years — led by such groups as Doctors Without Rights and the Independence Current — when the Muslim Brotherhood was the ruling party, especially under Morsi’s rule.
It is on this basis that the Brotherhood bloc has been accused of double standards regarding strike action, and also politicizing strikes for their immediate interests.
The Brotherhood’s bloc was largely defeated during the midterm Doctor’s Syndicate elections held on December 13. These elections unseated the Brotherhood’s bloc, which had dominated the syndicate for nearly 20 years.
The Independence Current — made up of liberal, centrist and left-leaning physicians — now dominates the Doctors Syndicate on a national level.
“We are witnessing new conditions in the Doctors Syndicate in light of the most recent elections,” Mina said. “There is now less resistance from the board of the Doctors Syndicate regarding strike action.”
She went on to say, “We are tired of the poor concessions that the ministries of health and finance have offered us. These concessions and trivial bonuses are nothing more than temporary painkillers.”
“We urgently need a radical change in doctors’ salaries and in patients’ healthcare,” she said. “The previous concessions have been insufficient for both doctors and patients.”