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President Ernest Koroma strives to improve health care through free services to young babies and pregnant mothers.
Nurses, who declined to provide their names for fear of retribution, say the public is already confused, with people coming to hospital demanding free care.
The average nurse at one of Freetown’s two government hospitals makes about $50 a month. A doctor makes about $100. They say they often use their own money to purchase latex gloves so they don’t put themselves at risk for infections and diseases such as HIV/AIDS when working with patients, who are typically at high risk for such diseases.
The pay isn’t enough to cover basic needs such a rent and food, the nurses said. A large bag of rice costs up to $30.
“I am fairly convinced and my government is convinced that most of the issues raised as your concerns are justifiable,” said Koroma during an address to more than 200 striking medical workers last month. “I take full responsibility. If there was earlier engagement and consultation … maybe we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
The three-week strike ended at the end of March when the government agreed to double the salaries of health workers.
Military doctors and nurses were manning the two government hospitals in Freetown during the strike. The military doctors did everything from the emergency room cases to the dressings of wounded patients, according to Lance Cpl. Tengbeh John.
Sierra Leone’s annual budget for medical workers’ wages is $6 million, but will increase to $12.5 million, in order to double individual salaries.
There’s still a shortfall in the overall monies needed to implement the plan and the Koroma government has gone back to the donor community to solicit $11.2 million more.
“We received $4.6 million, but there is still a gap,” Koroma told medical workers at the time. “It’s a special condition for a special group to provide special services to save mother Sierra Leone.”
To date, it’s still unclear how much of a shortfall the government has to make the health plan a success.
Charly Cox, technical assistant for the Ministry of Health and Sanitation said staffing is just one part of overhauling the nation’s medical system, but hospitals also need “electrification and running water, equipment and drugs.”
“We are very pleased that (the medical workers) have gone back to work,” she said. “This is an opportunity to turnaround the health sector in Sierra Leone.”
Cox said the health care initiative goes beyond simply offering workers a raise and opening the gates to women and children. The ministry is sending medical workers to other West African nations for additional training and to learn best practices for administering care.
“There’s a huge amount of other stuff going on behind the scenes,” she said. “We want it to be free and on the way to a higher quality health care system.”