Nigerian doctors in state hospitals have begun a nationwide strike, paralysing the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic as cases continue to rise steadily.
Members of an umbrella organisation representing all doctors employed by the government announced an indefinite strike yesterday to protest low salaries, a lack of "hazard" pay for treating virus patients and the "grossly inadequate" provision of protective equipment.
The doctors also demanded an end to the harassment and assault of medical workers by security agents enforcing curfews.
The National Association of Resident Doctors, which represents about 40 per cent of the country’s physicians, said the government had been given two weeks notice of the strike action but had failed to meet their demands.
In a statement given in the capital Abuja on Monday, the group’s president said that some Covid-19 patients in treatment and isolation centres would be exempted from any strike action. However, if the Nigerian government does not meet its demands in the next two weeks, those centres will be hit by the strikes, too.
Covid-19 is spreading rapidly across Africa’s most populous nation with some 16,000 recorded cases of the virus and 420 deaths. However, the real number of cases is almost certainly far higher than the official statistics because of a lack of testing materials. Nigeria has carried out just 94,000 tests on its population of about 200 million since the virus started to spread in March, according to the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
There have also been several outbreaks of hundreds of "mysterious" deaths in the northern Nigerian states of Yobe and Kano since the outbreak began in March. Last week, the Nigerian health minister admitted that many of these deaths were probably due to Covid-19.
Nigeria already has worryingly few doctors for its population. The World Health Organisation recommends that countries have a ratio of one doctor to 600 people. Nigeria has one doctor for every 6,000 people. According to the Nigerian Medical Association, there are 72,000 registered Nigeria doctors but that more than 50 per cent of them practice outside the country.
Strikes by medical workers are frequent in Nigeria. Despite having Africa’s largest reserves of oil, the health sector has been left underfunded for decades. Many Nigerian elites, including the country’s President Muhammadu Buhari, prefer to fly abroad to London for medical treatment when they get ill.
So far the majority of Nigeria’s confirmed cases have been reported in Abuja, and Lagos and Kano, its two largest cities.