February 27, 2014
The Pharmacists and Dentists Syndicates joined the Doctors Syndicate in a one-day partial strike in public hospitals across the country on Wednesday with the general aim of improving Egypt’s healthcare system.
These syndicates claim that Wednesday’s strike was the strongest and most unified protest action that they have launched together —their average strike rate is 87 percent of their constituent members according to their own figures.
These medical syndicates, and tens of thousands of their constituents, are also threatening to embark upon open-ended strike actions as of March 8 if the Ministry of Health does not meet their demands.
Medical professionals have been increasing the frequency of their strikes – from one day per week in January, to two days per week in February. Their strikes are partial in that they are not supposed to affect any emergency healthcare services.
While each of these medical syndicates has its own list of specific demands, their common demands include improved safety and working conditions in public healthcare facilities, increased salaries (public healthcare professionals earn a starting salary of around LE1,000 and a top salary of around LE3,000 upon reaching the age of retirement.)
They are also calling for a larger allocation for healthcare expenditure in the national budget, an incremental pay scale and adequate compensation for contagious illnesses.
The strikers have criticized governmental officials for recently granting hazard and healthcare compensation to thousands of employees of the justice and interior ministries, while refusing to do the same for medical doctors.
These striking medical professionals claim that today’s strike action was the most successful and unified since they embarked on a string of partial strikes at the beginning of the year.
At a joint press conference held at the headquarters of the Doctors Syndicate on Wednesday, the central strike committee claimed an 87 percent participation rate amongst physicians at public hospitals, while the representatives of the Pharmacists Syndicate claim that 90 percent of pharmacists partook in today’s strikes, mostly in state-owned pharmacies. The Dentists Syndicate reported an 85 percent participation rate among its members.
However, the health ministry continued to downplay these strikes. The acting ministerial spokesperson, Mohamed Abu Suleiman, claimed that only around 23 percent of medical professionals heeded Wednesday’s strike calls. The ministry claimed that the doctors' strike was reported in 394 public hospitals out of 514 nationwide.
Since the start of the strikes in January, tensions between the ministry and these syndicates have increased significantly. This week the Doctors Syndicate referred Health Minister Maha al-Rabat to a disciplinary hearing for what they describe as her disregard for the rights of both Egyptian doctors and patients. The minister responded by stating that the syndicate does not have the authority or jurisdiction to do so. Her hearing is scheduled for March 9.
Among other grievances, the syndicate council ordered this disciplinary hearing in light of the ministry’s unwillingness to establish a specialized fact-finding committee to investigate the recent deaths of four physicians. They died after contracting fatal respiratory illnesses while working at the ministry’s hospitals.
While the cause of death has not been identified, the ministry has denied that it may be associated with Swine Flu or the H1NI Virus. Neither the Doctors nor the Veterinarians Syndicates have been able to identify the cause of death either.
While expressing solidarity with the strikes launched by their fellow medical professionals, the Veterinarians Syndicate did not partake in Wednesday’s strikes. It maintained its symbolic protest camp at their headquarters.
Commenting on today’s medical strikes, Ahmed Abu Shanab, board member of the Veterinarians Syndicate, said, “despite our different specializations, we are all doctors, and we all have similar demands regarding the necessary healthcare reforms, along with nearly identical demands in terms of administrative and budgetary restructuring.”
The Doctors, Dentists, Veterinarians and Pharmacists Syndicates together constitute the Federation of Medical Professions. This federation’s board is composed of the president, secretary general, and treasurer of all four of these syndicates – making up a 12-member council.
“There have been some schisms and disagreements between the federation’s board members since the start of the strike action in January,” Abu Shanab said. “A lack of proper coordination among the different syndicates has weakened the potential strength of a unified medical professionals’ strike.”
“Our most basic and common demand is an improved national healthcare system for all in Egypt,” he added.
The Veterinarians Syndicate Council has been reluctant to join in the strike actions, Abu Shanab predicted that it was unlikely that it would join in the unified medical strike planned for March 8.
The vet added that “political interests and other considerations” might be behind his syndicate’s reluctance to join the strikes organized by the other members of the Federation of Medical Professions.
“Maybe after we hold our [midterm] elections on March 14 we will end up with a new board that is more willing to join in the struggle for our rights as doctors,” he said.
The Veterinarians Syndicate has only participated in one day of strike action with the Doctors Syndicate this year – for a one-hour strike, on January 22.
*Archive photo by Jano Charbel