- While governments and members of the public are celebrating medical workers across the world for their professional sacrifices in battling COVID-19, many doctors in the employ of the government in Nigeria are facing starvation and frustration.
Last November, Victoria was full of high hopes as she resigned from her job at a private hospital where she was not being paid well. She had just been offered employment by Alex Ekwueme Federal University Teaching Hospital, Abakaliki (AEFUTHA) and, for her, a federal appointment meant higher and promptly paid salaries. But she was right only about the former.
The young resident doctor spent nearly all her savings on renting an apartment and relocating from Imo to Ebonyi State. Not a problem, she had thought, “All I have to do is work for a month to become financially stable again.” She received her first shock when, during their orientation exercise, the Chief Medical Director, Dr Emeka Onwe-Ogah, informed the newcomers they would not be paid for the first three months after which they would then get a lump sum. Older employees told her it was customary because, “You know, this is Nigeria.”
“Okay,” she contemplated, trying not to panic. “It is not that bad. All we have to do is exercise patience for three months and then we will be fine.”
This is the sixth month since her appointment and Victoria has still not been paid a dime. By the end of March, she and her colleagues were expecting credit alerts of at least over N800,000 that never showed up. Second shock.
When they asked for an explanation, the hospital management said they had yet to be enrolled on the federal government’s Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS), introduced in 2007 but implemented more strictly from October 2019. The management added that IPPIS officials could not visit the hospital to capture the staff’s biodata as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions on inter-state travelling.
“They told us that we should bear with them and hope the pandemic ends soon,” Victoria says, recalling the third and final shocking moment.
“So, what if the pandemic lasts until December or even next year? Does it mean we will be without salaries throughout that period? How are we going to feed? How are we going to take care of our families?”
She describes her experience over the past six months as “really terrible”. She has had to stop using her car because she cannot afford to fuel it and has been getting to work through motorcycles and tricycles. At some point, she recalls, she could not even afford the alternative means of transportation. Whenever they are broke, some of the doctors stay at home under such excuses as illness or food poisoning.
“The motivation to work is not there,” she adds with a shaky voice. “Some of my colleagues even slipped into depression; they just lost interest in life entirely. A lot of them were working in very good places and left because they got ‘something more promising’, only for them to be told stories that they cannot be paid.”
Victoria, who is the eldest sibling of four and whose dad is retired from service, has not been able to fulfil her obligations to her family.
Her story was echoed by half a dozen other resident doctors who spoke to HumAngle. In November, about 100 doctors were appointed by the federal teaching hospital. Together with nurses, laboratory scientists, pharmacists, and hospital orderlies, the workers who are affected by the non-payment of salaries are estimated to be well over 300 — between 30 and 40 per cent of the facility’s workforce.
Doctors in debt, doctors in tears
While many of the doctors are themselves battling debts that keep piling up and hunger, some of them have even more to worry about. In the case of Ugochukwu, that includes his wife, little sister, and aged mother. Unable to cater for their basic needs, he had to send the three to his village in Enugu.
“My wife can’t feed because she is not working yet. I am currently eating once or twice a day. One time, I fell ill and could not buy drugs. It was my neighbours who fed me,” he narrates sadly.
“If I die now, all the money they’re owing me will be gone.”
Last year, right before he resigned from his old workplace, health complications (osteoarthritis and urinary tract infections) suffered by his mother took all his savings.
“Then I got this job only to be told that I can’t be paid until the COVID-19 pandemic is over,” Ugochukwu expresses his disappointment. “My mother’s health could deteriorate any moment and if I can’t fund her treatment, I don’t know what will happen.”
If her condition worsens, not only will he need more money to pay for her treatment, he will also have to take over as the family’s breadwinner.
Paula, another doctor at AEFUTHA, says the increase in commodity prices and general scarcity due to the pandemic has put them in even greater hardship. She had also resigned from a different facility before joining the teaching hospital. “Imagine the joy in my heart and that of my family members when I got this offer,” she says.
Months down the line, she has only been able to survive thanks to loans from friends and families. Other doctors with similar complaints often add that general economic hardship has reduced the goodwill they have enjoyed from others in the past. Add to that, many of their friends now tell them they are not creditworthy.
“I have exhausted all I have,” Paula says. “I am eating from hand to mouth, borrowing from every Tom, Dick, and Harry to sustain a livelihood. Even the borrowing is not so easy because nobody wants to give their money out.”
“Some of us who are catering for our parents and siblings are tired of giving the excuse that we’ve not been paid. The agony I am passing through, the tears and regrets are beyond comparison. You are a doctor, yet you can’t take care of yourself.”
She adds that her experiences have made her realise there is nothing worse than being broke and without hope.
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