Doctors’ strikes of late have become a part of normal existence in Sri Lanka. Indeed industrial action by the powerful Government Medical Officers Association, (GMOA) could be justifiably described as an epidemic, in the midst of a dangerously raging flu epidemic. .
For quite some time now the state medical fraternity has been downing its scalpels, scrubs and stethoscopes for several unfair demands. Late last year for instance the GMOA demanded duty-free vehicle permits for senior state officers once in five years from the present limit of twice during the entire service period. Around the same time the union launched a token strike across several hospitals in the country in an attempt to pressure the government into granting school admission for their children.

The    most recent strike demanding the closure or nationalization of the South Asia Institute of Technology and Medical SAITM, appears to smack of nothing but envy and fear of the medical fraternity becoming an overcrowded profession. Surely its unrelenting striking stakeholders come up with the most ludicrous arguments over such a demand that that obviously smack of more than a mere tinge of jealousy and fear that they would be upstaged by private university scholars.

The strikes are not about better working conditions, better salaries, or to seek respite from longer working hours. And did these medical professionals ever give a thought to the suffering sick racked in pain and who don’t give a tinker’s cuss for any such resentful agendas?

Can the GMOA explain to the poor patients who have no recourse to private medical facilities how doctors who have taken a sacred vow to save lives and whose careers are dedicated to healing the sick can then abandon  desperately ill patients because they don’t like a private medical institution.

No doctor anywhere should want or be allowed to do that. Not for any reason. And those striking junior docs can say as often as they like they had no choice but to strike – but they absolutely did.

And that’s what makes these strikes so impossible to understand – that people who have dedicated their lives to healing the sick can desert their patients for one hour, let alone 24.
Who can comprehend the mindset of a doctor who can do that knowing their patients could come to harm, even if they try to justify it by saying it’s only for a short time. But health care has to transcend the politics of envy and spite. Because it’s not a political party or ministers who are suffering here – most of them obviously have the luxury of private health care abroad. It’s ordinary people, sick people, powerless people who suffer. And we bet many of the people supporting the strikes haven’t been personally affected or had someone they love left abandoned in agony by them.

The people who have no choice were the patients whose surgeries were put on hold and the half-blind people whose cataract ops were cancelled. There were people who still can’t walk because their hip ops were scrapped. And there were thousands more who are still in agony because the medics in charge of their care walked out on them.

These striking doctors cannot keep saying that no patient’s life will be in danger during these walkouts, because they are running emergency services. Any patient’s condition that seems stable can worsen in a matter of minutes if not provided with urgent medical attendance.

The pawn in all these situations is the poor public, with human lives and limbs as the bargaining chips. In many foreign states doctors who abandoned their patients were likely to be found guilty of misconduct if tried by the medical councils.

But have you ever heard of anyone reporting any striking doctor to the Sri Lanka Medical Council on grounds that a patient suffered distress or death as a result of a strike? Doctors must avoid the temptation of extremism by protecting the weak and the vulnerable during their quarrels with their employers.

As doctors, doesn’t the SLMC believe this strikes such as these should never be embarked upon, save in the most extraordinary circumstances? And indeed the current impasse does not seem to justify such extreme and unprofessional action, when the interests of their patients should always be their first priority.

The striking medics are not appeased even after the Government decided to bring the Neville Fernando Teaching Hospital which is affiliated to
SAITM under the purview of the Health Ministry. Nor is it willing to be conciliated that the Government has also decided to conduct a mandatory examination under the joint supervision of the SLMC and the University Grants Commission to provide provisional registration for medical graduates who have passed out of SAITM.

Okay, so the GMOA also claims the quality of the staff at SAITM is inferior. As far as we are aware, the vast majority of SAITM teaching staff is drawn from within the state medical faculties, with lecturers opting to spend their sabbatical leave there instead of spending it overseas for bigger bucks!

If the GMOA as a responsible medical body should fully endorse and support this private medical college to ensure that it maintains its standards by providing its input on how to improve the quality of its graduates. There is an spine-chilling sense of déjà vu in this entire howling protest of what was tantamount to class envy. Remember after independence, how English, viewed as elitism continued as the foremost language of business, mainstream education and the bureaucracy until 1956?

The primary constraint has been those same social and political forces which have been viewing elitism as a barrier to the domination and sweeping forces of nationalism. It had been easy to spot the political drift during the first decade or so following independence which became an era of gloating regalement for extremist forces made up largely of nationalist cranks.

It provoked a professional brain-drain, which resulted in a mass emigration of a large sector of the elite educated class of all races to various parts of the world. But those were horrible intolerant times when state-sanctified class envy was allowed its crazed stampede towards a disaster we have still been unable to recover from.

Indeed, SAITM came to the rescue of patients who were inconvenienced by the strike launched by the GMOA, providing medical treatment including tests and in-patient facilities free of charge until the strike was over. It also set up a special unit to treat patients suffering from dengue and influenza epidemics free of charge during this period.
Obviously we are shackled by a sick system of education particularly in the medical sphere. There is an entrenched state medical mafia hell bent on keeping its privileged status quo intact. The entire issue could be resolved in a civilized manner if not for the greed, envy and fear that their lucrative careers will be overshadowed by the students of private medical institutions.