For months * Emeka Nwaeze had to travel back and forth between her family’s home in Owerri, the capital of southern Nigeria’s Imo State, and the federal hospital, where her 54-year-old mother suffered from heart failure. kidney was subjected to dialysis.
Then one night his condition worked. Early in the morning, Nwaeze rushed her to the hospital, but was told that “the doctors just started their strike, therefore she cannot be admitted.”
“Before we could get to any hospital, she fell into a coma,” Nwaeze, a beauty salon businesswoman, told Al Jazeera.
It was too late when she was admitted to a private hospital where the elementary school teacher did not respond and finally died a week later.
His case is not isolated. Many people, including COVID-19 and cancer patients, have been turned away from understaffed hospitals in Nigeria since August 2, when thousands of resident physicians went on strike over unpaid wages, poor facilities and insufficient risk allowances. Others are left to die in hospital beds without being diagnosed or receiving treatment.
The striking doctors say they are concerned for the well-being of their patients, but blame the federal government, saying it repeatedly failed to deliver on its promises to improve the healthcare system.
“I have decided to join the strike because the government has not kept any of the promises it made earlier,” said Yahaya Zubaida, a resident doctor at a public hospital in the Nigerian capital Abuja.
It is the fourth time that Zubaida and his colleagues have gone on strike since the coronavirus pandemic began last year. This time, they insist their action will not be suspended until lawsuits are filed, including a raise and payment of previous unpaid wages; an increased tolerance for risk; best facilities and equipment – are complied with by the government.
The government has responded to the doctors’ strike by invoking the “No work, no pay” rule, freezing the wages of participants. Health Minister Osagie Ehanire warned doctors that they “should not be used by enemies of the country to cause instability in the health sector.”
Al Jazeera reached out to the Health Ministry, but did not receive a response at the time of publication.
There are currently some 42,000 doctors in Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa with more than 210 million people. Of the doctors, 16,000 are resident doctors participating in the strike organized by the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD).
Those doctors, who are critical to the nation’s front-line healthcare, have long complained of being ill-equipped, overworked and underfunded. Some of them, even in metropolises like Lagos and Abuja, have not received their salary for months.
“There was a time within this year when I was owed three months’ salary; some of my colleagues are still owed some of their salaries, ”said * Samihana Mustafa, a doctor from the central state of Nasarawa.
This year, the government has reportedly allocated just 4 percent of the entire budget to the health ministry, leaving public hospitals already collapsing due to chronic underfunding under a lot of pressure.
Mustafa said the system was in a “terrible condition” as people die in hospitals from “preventable causes.”
“I once had to refer a patient who presented with severe hematemesis (vomiting blood) to another hospital, as the endoscopy machine was not working. Unfortunately, the patient died on the way, ”Mustafa added.
Zubaida shared the same experiences. “After doing everything possible and the patient passes away, he becomes so discouraged from saving others knowing that if the system was fair, that patient could have been saved,” Zubaida said.
The ruling elite and wealthy Nigerians travel abroad in search of medical services, spending an estimated $ 2 billion a year on medical tourism.
President Muhammadu Buhari, 78, recently faced criticism when returning from London after a regular medical check-up while doctors were on strike. Nigerian media reported that Buhari has spent 200 days in total for official medical trips in London since he came to power in May 2015.
“What the ruling elite forget is that they can have medical emergencies and have to rely on a weak healthcare system,” said Dr. Ifeanyi Nsofor, New Voices senior fellow at the Aspen Institute. “It is in the best interest of everyone, rich or poor, that the system works.”
In this context, thousands of Nigerian doctors have moved abroad in recent years in search of better wages and working conditions. Last month, amid the latest strike, hundreds of Nigerian doctors participated in a recruiting exercise in an attempt to work in Saudi Arabia, although there were only seven positions available.
According to a 2018 survey by Nigeria Health Watch, 88 percent of physicians actively seek opportunities abroad. Nearly half of those surveyed said they have between five and 15 friends and colleagues who work in the medical profession and who have moved out of the country in the past two years.
Najah Nuhu moved to the UK in 2019. He said he had a “love-hate relationship” with the system during his time as a doctor in Nigeria.
“The love part obviously comes from wanting to help the people in your community because actually the country and the community invested in you in so many ways,” Nuhu said. “The hate part is the failed system where you always feel like your hands are tied. He wants to help but cannot because somehow the service, the installation is not available. “
Back in Owerri, Nwaeze struggles to keep going after his mother’s death.
“If there was a quality healthcare system in Nigeria… If that strike hadn’t happened, my mother would have been alive today. So many ‘yes’. which obviously won’t bring my mom back, ”he said.
“It hurts, but I can’t do anything, my mother lies lifeless in the morgue.”
* Names marked with asterisks have been changed to protect the identity of those who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.