Many Liberian healthcare workers ignore Ebola strike call

Health workers in protective gear pose at the entrance of the Ebola treatment unit of the John F. Kennedy Medical Center, in the Liberian capital Monrovia, on Oct 13, 2014. Many Liberian healthcare workers on the frontline of the battle against
Health workers in protective gear pose at the entrance of the Ebola treatment unit of the John F. Kennedy Medical Center, in the Liberian capital Monrovia, on Oct 13, 2014. Many Liberian healthcare workers on the frontline of the battle against Ebola ignored calls to strike over poor pay and working conditions, and most hospitals and clinics were operating normally, officials and charity workers said. -- PHOTO: AFP

MONROVIA (Reuters) - Many Liberian healthcare workers on the frontline of the battle against Ebola ignored calls to strike over poor pay and working conditions, and most hospitals and clinics were operating normally, officials and charity workers said.

Alphonso Weah, head of medical staff at the government's 150-bed Island Clinic in the capital Monrovia, said workers had decided to come in after appeals from the general public.

"We have agreed, collectively as a community, to go back to work," Weah told a popular radio talk show.

But George Williams, the secretary-general of the National Health Workers Association of Liberia, told Reuters the government was pressuring workers by trying to shame them and offering money.

"The President (Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf) went to various Ebola Treatment Units, giving them money and asking those who are not a true Liberian to put up their hands that they would strike,"he said.

More than 4,000 people have died of the viral haemorrhagic fever in West Africa, mostly in Liberia, neighbouring Sierra Leone and Guinea. The disease has also spread to Nigeria, Senegal, Spain and the United States.

Healthcare workers are particularly vulnerable, as the disease is spread through direct contact with body fluids from an infected person.

More than 95 healthcare workers in Liberia have died, roughly the same number as in neighbouring Sierra Leone, the World Health Organization has said. The two people who have been infected outside Africa were both healthcare workers - nurses - who treated Ebola patients.

Liberia has the highest number of infections and deaths of any country, with 2,316 deaths. Yet government healthcare workers say they are still working without basic protective clothing and are not receiving adequate compensation.

The strike was supposed to have started at midnight on Monday but Liberian Information Minister Lewis Brown said reports from across the country indicated that the majority of hospitals and clinics were operating normally.

"Most health care facilities are open and staffed," he told Reuters. "We have done all we can and will continue to do all we can so that patients continue to receive the care they need."

A spokeswoman for medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said their two Ebola Treatment Units (ETU) - in Monrovia and the northern county of Lofa - were operating normally. Staff there have different pay and conditions to governments clinics.

There are only six ETUs operating in Liberia - three operated by MSF and International Medical Corps (IMC), and the remainder by the government. The US military, currently deploying to Liberia, plans to construct up to 17 more.

Health Minister Walter Gwenigale acknowledged at a news conference on Monday afternoon that many workers were frustrated because they had not been fully paid an increase promised under a deal last month.

"Let my assure those people that we have the money to now to pay the difference between what was signed in the contract and what was paid in the contract," he said. "That money is available and is being paid. So please, please stay with your patients."

The government had received reports of some workers on strike in certain parts of Liberia but was doing everything to return them to work, Deputy Health Minister Matthew Flomo said.

"Their action is more than embarrassing. This has the propensity of resulting in the loss of lives of innocent people," he said.