NAIROBI - A wave of contractions forces Sharon Andisi to crouch by the dusty taxi rank outside a hospital. Although she is about to give birth, she has just been turned away from Kenya's only public maternity hospital because of a month-long strike by state doctors.
As a crowd gathers around her outside the Pumwani Maternity Hospital, a taxi driver offers to take Andisi to a private hospital. Like most Kenyans, Andisi, 23, an out-of-work teacher, cannot afford the $100 fee the private clinic charges for a delivery without complications, compared to the $15 charged in public facilities, but she has no choice.
Just as she makes it to the reception at Edna Clinic, Andisi gives birth to a baby girl she names Rosa.
Andisi was lucky. A local broadcaster, Citizen TV Saturday, followed a pregnant woman whose baby died after she was turned away from Pumwani hospital, where more than 350 mothers give birth a week during normal operations.
Doctors asked to return
Such scenes have become frequent across Kenya as the doctors' strike stretches into a second month. The strike began on December 5. The doctors are adamant that President Uhuru Kenyatta's government must honor a collective bargaining agreement it signed in 2013 to increase their salaries by 180 percent.
The strike has caused a near-total paralysis in the health sector and dozens are believed to have died from a lack of emergency services. Early in December, Kenyatta said at least 20 people had died as a result of the strike.
Kenyatta has twice asked the doctors to return to work, first appealing to their humanity for the suffering masses and then offering a partial increase of the salary hikes negotiated in agreement with doctors in 2013.
The Kenya Medical Practitioners Pharmacists and Dentist Union rejected both offers and urged the government to pay the salary increases it promised three years ago.
Problem with pay hikes
In 2012, doctors went on strike to protest the dilapidated state of public health care. Emergency rooms in some of Kenya's public hospitals frequently don't have gloves or medicine, and power outages sometimes force doctors to use their cell phones to provide adequate light for a surgical procedure.
“We are totally fed up,” said union official Dr. Nelly Bosire. Despite the high level of academic qualifications required to become a doctor, doctors in public hospitals earn a basic monthly salary of $400, compared to a Kenyan legislator who earns about $13,600 a month, Bosire said. She said doctors have been pressing for pay increases since 1984.
Kenyatta's administration argues that the doctors’ demands will set off pay hike demands from other civil servants. Meanwhile, Kenya’s health ministry is being investigated by the Ethics and Anti-Corruption commission for the loss of millions of dollars.
The government has said it would fire all striking doctors who had not returned to work by Wednesday. A Kenyan court also issued a warrant of arrest for union officials for failing to stop the strike, as the court had ordered them to do.
Doctors aren't worried
But many of the doctors are not frightened by threats of being fired because they run businesses on the side to supplement their meager government incomes, Bosire said.
Despite the travails she went through giving birth, Andisi said she supports the doctors' strike.
“I have suffered today moving from one place to another in labor ... I could have lost my life or the baby’s. Government should look after the doctors. Surely the government is hurting us,” she said. “The government doesn't see how we suffer ... 90 percent of those suffering are the common people.”