Medical staff across Haiti have entered the fourth month of a nationwide strike, which has spread to more than a dozen state-run hospitals and led to countless deaths as hospitals scramble to provide care for neglected patients.
In a country that has already been battling a cholera epidemic, widespread malnutrition and this year’s outbreak of the Zika virus, the nationwide strike has posed a new public health challenge that Haiti’s medical system isn’t equipped to handle.
The residents on strike earn the equivalent of about $140 a month and are demanding better pay, improvements in hospitals’ sanitary conditions and basic medical supplies like surgical gloves and gauze. News reports have documented the appalling conditions in public hospitals, where power outages are common and night-shift surgeons are forced to operate by light from their cell phones.
After a bleeding pregnant woman dropped dead outside of Haiti’s largest public hospital in May when no doctors were available to help her, Haitians protested. But the tiny nation’s public health crisis has otherwise been largely unaddressed with no policymaking under way to resolve it.
“A perfect storm of striking medical residents, missing doctors and a lack of money has virtually paralyzed an already weak health-care system, and no one seems to be in a hurry to fix it,” writes Jacqueline Charles, Caribbean correspondent for the Miami Herald.
Vincent DeGennaro Jr., President of the non-profit group Innovating Health International, said the loss of medical staff is resulting in massive overcrowding in the few nonprofit and privately owned medical groups in operation.
At the charity-funded St. Luke Medical Center, medical staff are now forced to turn away patients daily for lack of staff and resources.
“They’ve gone from 25 beds to 50 beds in order to meet the demand, and that’s still not even scratching the surface,” DeGennaro said in an interview with Humanosphere. “At the end of the day, as a result of this strike, people are dying on a daily basis and there doesn’t seem to be much political will from any parties involved to resolve this.”
DeGennaro’s team had intended to launch a cervical cancer prevention program in nine Haitian public hospitals, but the program is on hold, since there are no doctors to train and no patients to be seen.
“This strike will have a long-term impact as well,” said DeGennaro, as residents, technicians, doctors and nurses lose valuable months of training. In a country with an already severely strained medical system, he added, this loss of trained staff “will continue to haunt the country in the future.”
So far, negotiations between the government and protesting residents have been mostly stagnant – partly because there’s currently no real government in place. Last month, interim President Jocelerme Privert demanded that resident doctors return to work, but the hundreds of residents on strike throughout Haiti are still holding out for at least double the salary that the government is currently proposing: just $222 to $270 a month.
The crisis is complicated and has raised difficult questions about the morality of underpaid doctors striking as the hospital system crumbles.
“I want to see [these doctors]reach their goal,” DeGennaro said. “But at the same time, people are dying; they’re dying by the dozens, because there’s no place for them to go.”