In Nigeria’s capital city of Abuja, doctors battling the novel coronavirus pandemic are struggling to feed.
Outside an eerily quiet COVID-19 isolation center in Karu, Abuja, Nigeria’s moneyed capital city, doctors wearing forlorn and dejected looks huddle in groups to discuss their plight on a windy Wednesday afternoon in late August, at lunchtime.
“We’ve been fighting to have them pay our daily inducement allowances which are N50,000 for doctors, N30,000 for nurses, pharmacists and laboratory scientists; and N20,000 for hygienists (cleaners) since June”, says Doctor *Adaeze Kenechukwu who is still in scrubs.
All healthcare workers at all the COVID-19 isolation centers in Abuja haven’t been paid for three months; and the dour, somber mood in Karu is replicated across the federal capital.
Kenechukwu, a young doctor, remembers the day she volunteered to join the healthcare force battling the novel pandemic in Africa’s most populous country.
At the time, it seemed like the most patriotic thing to do. The most logical thing to do. The most pragmatic decision she had ever taken.
She remembers accepting to put her life on the line for the green and white.
“When this whole thing started, they announced that they needed volunteers. The most important thing for the volunteers was that you have to be working in whatever city it is that they are going to have the isolation centers and get the volunteer health workers.
“So, it doesn’t matter if you are with the federal government, it doesn’t matter if you are with the FCTA (Federal Capital Territory Authority), it doesn’t matter if you are private.
“The most important thing was that you were working within the FCT. So, a lot of people volunteered, right?”, she says, as she yanks off her gloves meticulously. And hurls them into a nearby bin with some venom.
“The whole thing got political after the payment was announced. I was one of the first people who got trained. My batch was the second or third to be deployed.
“Because it got very political, Asokoro decided to give us the whole hospital for use as an isolation center. So they forced people working at the FCTA to go into this isolation center.
“Many of them didn’t want to, obviously because in the beginning, people were dying of this virus quite a lot outside of Nigeria. It was a scary virus to battle.
“Our health systems are so poor, so the healthcare workers thought they were not going to survive this. People didn’t want to volunteer because they were scared for their lives and understandably so.
“But we were just like, ‘you know what? As long as we do what we are supposed to do, let’s go! If we don’t volunteer, nobody is going to take care of our citizens.
“So, Asokoro goes like four weeks before us. Most of them were people working in Asokoro. They were the second batch of trainees.
“Those of us who got trained in the first batch, waited for eight weeks before we were deployed. So, Asokoro goes in the first month and we were deployed in Karu.
“Asokoro, Gwagwalada and Karu were the first set of isolation centers to be opened. Most of us in Karu were like private, FCTA staff as well as federal government staff. We started working in May. Sometime in the middle of June, the money stopped coming. People started asking questions about payment,” she says.
No official has explained why the money has stopped coming, even though Nigeria continues to rack up and report more and more COVID-19 cases by the day. Abuja has the most COVID-19 cases outside Nigeria’s commercial capital city of Lagos.
Kenechukwu recalls now, with a balled fist, how they were told that their services were no longer required and discarded like rags, after being owed and starved for months.
“By the way, this is the second time they have paid Asokoro healthcare workers their inducement allowance.
“We worked for the whole of June, the whole of July–the money we got in June was for May, because we started working in May.
“The whole of June, we didn’t hear anything, the whole of July, nothing. So we started wondering what was going on, why are you not paying us?
“And they were like, ‘don’t worry, just continue working, we are going to pay you, there is no money right now….
“And the next thing we heard is ‘oh, listen, we don’t even think we can pay you guys. We are going to pay you based on the percentage of your basic salary.’
“The problem with this arrangement is that for people working with the FCTA, it’s easy for them to do that because they already know how much they are paying them, seeing as they already have that information because they pay them their salary directly.
“So, it will be easier to just have FCTA workers because it will be easier to implement this massive fraud.
“They come out and say they are going to pay you this amount of money, right, and then ‘we come in and people are not dying like we thought they would, so let’s just cheat them out of the money.’
“So, they say they don’t want any private or federal government workers, only FCTA. So, private healthcare workers like us were told to leave. Federal healthcare workers were told to leave. They told us to go on isolation because they no longer need our services.
“We now heard that they are now deploying people that work in the FCTA to come and take our positions.
“Basic salary is rubbish for many healthcare workers here. Your basic salary can be like N50,000 and maybe your call allowance or other things can now make up the salary.
“So, if your basic salary is N50,000, they will now pay you an extra 50 percent off your basic, so you get N75,000, which is N50,000 plus N25,000. Then out of that N50,000, they will pay you an extra 20 percent of COVID allowance. So, per month, they will pay you N82,000 or N85,000. So, in three months, they will pay you N82,000 multiplied by 3 (N246,000). And this is for doctors.
“So, for nurses, it’s a lot less. For hygienists, it’s a lot, lot less. So, everyone here is just agitating, and people are just very upset. The annoying thing is that nobody has come to address us to say this is what we are going to do.
“They are all having closed-door meetings, they have all concluded to say this is what we are going to do. Nobody has come to tell us…
“They haven’t paid Karu, they haven’t paid Asokoro, they haven’t paid Idu, they haven’t paid Gwagwalada and they haven’t paid ThisDay Dome for June, July and August.
“All the healthcare workers in these isolation centers who resumed in July for instance or afterwards, haven’t been paid at all.
“Asokoro and Gwagwalada have been paid twice. Karu, Idu have been paid once. ThisDay Dome hasn’t been paid at all and there are healthcare workers in each center that haven’t received any payment at all because of when they joined these isolation centers.”
As we settle for lunch in a nearby eatery, Kenechukwu wonders if she made a mistake choosing to serve her country when her services were most needed.
She is close to tears now.
“What we want is for the federal government to pay us our inducement allowance, not the 70 percent of basic salary. Because we all did the same thing. We were all exposed to the same risks.
“Most of the PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) we are using are donated. If you go back to the beginning, you would see how UBA gave money, Alakija gave money, Dangote too….China brought huge loads of PPE materials with 16 health workers. Nobody knows their whereabouts to this day. Nobody knows where they went.
“They said these Chinese were coming to help us and train us and then they disappeared. There is no shortage of materials. As doctors, we are trained to do no harm, but right now, the mood and the motivation is gone. People are just not happy.
“Those of us from the private sector had to leave our jobs. We are not being paid salaries at our jobs and we are not being paid our allowances here. People working in the FCTA are still getting their salaries every month.
“We need money for our families, we need money to meet daily needs, we need money to pay for our transportation. I’m sure there’s no other country on the face of the planet right now, that is treating healthcare workers battling a pandemic, this way….” she trails off.
On Friday, August 28, 2020, Dr Mustapha Ibrahim, who is the General secretary, Association of Resident Doctors at the FCTA, issued a statement calling for an emergency meeting of doctors.
At the end of the combined zoom/physical meeting at the conference room of the Maitama District Hospital, the doctors resolved to embark on a strike from September 1, if their hazard allowances aren’t paid.
All in the middle of a pandemic.
“We are treated like slaves for accepting to serve,” says *Dr Ibrahim Ahmed who works at the Asokoro isolation center. “I have children to feed, I have school fees to pay. And then they told us to leave just like that and that they are closing some of the isolation centers,” Ahmed adds.
At the Idu isolation center, patients who are asking for one more round of COVID-19 tests to ascertain their current status, are being ignored by demotivated and frustrated doctors.
“I asked a nurse if I could get a test to confirm my status so that I will know how long I’m staying here. But she said she wasn’t sure because they haven’t been paid. It’s like they can’t access some things right now…
“It’s just not right to do work and not get paid for it. Of course you won’t put in your best in a scenario like this. Right now, they are talking of going on strike. Which is going to put those of us who are patients here at risk,” one patient in the Idu facility says.
Relevant authorities at the FCT reached for this story, have ignored repeated requests for comments.