The issue is two-fold, one is the pay squeeze that nurses, nursing assistants and other medical workers already face as among the lowest-paid public servants in Uganda.
By Opiyo Oloya
My sister Caroline Akota Omoya was buried four Saturdays ago, on November 10, 2018, in Kirombe, Gulu. She was 65 years old. A relatively young age to die, she had been sick for some time during the past several months, following a knee replacement.
All her life, she had been a nurse, working extremely hard in different hospitals all over the country, including Gulu General Hospital, Jinja, Masindi and elsewhere. She never missed a day of work if she could help it and, as many of her former colleagues who attended the funeral attested, she was the kindest soul one could meet.
I know, she was my sister. While it is sad to lose a sibling, as she neared the end of life, what deeply disturbed me was the financial situation she was in. She worked very hard to get her pension from the Ministry of Health, what she rightfully worked for, but all she got was the run around, sent back-and-forth to different offices, asked to fill meaningless forms that were going nowhere, then told to wait patiently, while the claims were being sorted out.
She waited, honestly, she did. That was sometime in 2015, but nothing happened. When she made no headway, she harnessed my help in contacting certain ministry officials who gave me the same honeyed assurances that she was on the list of pensioners soon to be paid. To the day she died, she was still waiting to collect what she worked for and, which rightfully, now, belongs to her two surviving sons, my nephews David Omoya and Dr Sebastian Omoya.
But my sister had brothers and sisters who took good care of her during her time of need and, when she passed on, she received a most beautiful and decent burial. Instead, my worry now is about all the nurses who are out there today, alive, who have reached the age of retirement, but who have nothing to show for their many years of caring for other people. In their time of need, who looks after them and what happens to their pension money?
The issue is two-fold, one is the pay squeeze that nurses, nursing assistants and other medical workers already face as among the lowest-paid public servants in Uganda. Salary increase is expected next year, following the signing of the collective bargaining agreement in June this year, between the Government and the National Organisation of Trade Unions and its affiliates, which include Uganda Medical Workers Union and Uganda Nurses and Midwives Union.
But these pay increases are not retroactive and will not address historical wage gaps for nurses who, given the long work hours and issues they deal with every day, are grossly underpaid. When, in November last year, nurses demanded the equivalent of 400% increase in wages, no doubt, their calculations took into account the extraordinary long hours they work every single day, to care for the sick, the weak and those in palliative care who cannot care for themselves.
However, and this is the issue my sister faced, when nurses retire, they should not depend on handouts or the goodwill of others. They should not live in dire poverty, without a single coin to their names. If there is justice at all, it should be that in their retirement days, nurses are allowed to put up their feet and enjoy the rest they surely deserve.
That, unfortunately, was not the experience of retired nurse Caroline Omoya. Her dignity and human worth were degraded at her most vulnerable moment. She had a small house she had built for her family, which kept the rain away, but for everything else, she depended on the goodwill of others. She did not lack for anything because her siblings took care of that, but she should not have had to depend on anybody.
The issue for me is this: Can the Ministry of Health say with clarity and specificity what happened to my sister’s pension and the pension of many nurses who are alive and waiting to receive what is deservedly theirs?
Can the ministry assure these retirees that they do not have to wait another month while someone in the huge bureaucracy demands more paperwork?
Can the Ministry of Health promise nurses that, wherever they are, who are waiting for their pension, will receive the money promptly or, at the very least, an assurance that the money is coming on a very specific date?
As a nation, as Ugandans, we should care deeply that our nurses do not go hungry because we have failed to pay them enough money or withheld their pension. These are the people to whom we look for care, sympathy and human love at our most vulnerable moments.
They deserve better treatment than the raw deal they are getting right now. Our very lives depend on their welfare.