It was sometime in 2004. Korle Bu was in an industrial turmoil, fuelled by chronic delays in the payment of Additional Duty Hour Allowances (ADHA). At one meeting, Junior Doctors resolved to agitate every month until sloppiness gave way to proactivity. As Chairman of Junior Doctors, I was in the eye of the storm. The Board fully rounded up on me personally at a meeting called to advance the cause of threats and intimidation. In some quarters, some management members investigated my tribe instead of finding solutions.
In an ensuing lull, a Senior Medical Officer (SMO) visited me in the Children’s Department where I was doing my house job. Like many others, his avarice was not matched by courage nor his hypocrisy by self- sacrifice. He truly loved the money the fight fought by the faces of Junior Doctors brought, but he would keep his support secret, lest he be victimized in his post graduate residency programme, he said.
“It appears to me that since the Board called and threatened you, you have gone quiet. It is as if you are afraid. Meanwhile, the delays associated with the payment of ADHA have not been fully resolved! I seriously need the money to do some projects!” He did not appear to find my explanations for a change in tactics plausible as he mocked my executive and walked away disenchanted.
The leadership had decided on a change in tactics. There were clearly bottlenecks in the payment chain that went beyond Korle Bu, although Korle Bu had its role. Secondly, it was unfair to be involved in an automatic industrial unrest without even pre-informing, let alone carry along our clients – the patients who visited every month. Without knowing our grievances, how could they support us? We felt this was unacceptable and decided that it was equally important if not more important to win over the larger Ghanaian public as a key strategic intervention. In many respects, this latter point crystallizes a somewhat philosophical contest that emerges with each doctors’ strike action. Is it worth trying to win the public support? There are those within our ranks that roundly rubbish any effort to reach out to the public, declaring, “The public will never support us anyway” and those of us who passionately argue that winning the hearts of the people is an essential determinant of a successful industrial action, defined by the speed and totality with which genuine concerns are addressed by the employer.
Often, it is severe public antipathy towards governments and not the strike action itself that forces their hand. If one declared a strike action but ended up with a situation where the public turned their anger on doctors instead of against the government, then we would tactically be in a bad position. With public venom pouring against doctors, any government will be in a position of comfort, with sometimes, relatively straight forward solutions deliberately drifting directionless for weeks. If only we could get active pro-doctor public support and advocacy, the mere threat of strike action will be sufficient to bring any government to its knees as far as addressing genuine grievances is concerned.
Back then, without any raging strike action, we thoughtfully crafted a press statement explaining our position in simple language. Prior to its massive circulation, I went to see Prof Kwabena Frimpong-Boateng, the Korle Bu CEO, to explain that contrary to what others had said, this was not a fight that was personally directed against him. I shared our press statement with him and calmly explained our line of action. If indeed the solution to ADHA delays was not entirely Korle Bu-based, then it did not make sense to concentrate the entire fight within Korle Bu. He truly appreciated the effort we had made to engage him although we had understandable differences on strategy and tactics.
And then the statement was released. On Monday morning, Producer Stan Dogbe called. Komla Dumor, host of the pace setting Super Morning Show wanted to interrogate the issues further in a telephone interview. With incisive questioning and solid background research, he brought out what he would always subsequently call “the story”. So well did the interview go infact, that Komla subsequently invited us for a live studio interview that Wednesday. He was too aware of the power of his personality and the leverage of his platform. Sensing that we were being given a raw deal, all other insults notwithstanding, he gave us more time on the Super Morning Show! This we grabbed with both hands, painting vivid pictures of our sordid realities on radio when he asked about the typical day in the life of a junior doctor!
By the time the Show was over, the public response was overwhelming. Was the tide really turning in our favour? In follow up calls, “wicked uncaring junior doctors “gave way to “hard working young doctors being cheated by government!” With Komla’s sensitive questioning, we were finally gaining some traction on the issues and getting government’s attention. We quickly followed this up with a crucial meeting with the Dr.Akoto Osei, Deputy Finance Minister and later with the Health Minister Dr Kwaku Afriyie who was livid we seemed to have by passed his Ministry. We tracked the cash flow process, got the Deputy Finance Minister to bark out some instructions, discussed the need to mechanize the ADHA and contributed our own thoughts on government’s early thinking on a new Health Sector Salary Structure. In the course of the discussion, the Deputy Minister recalled my interviews with Dumor. In one week, we had achieved far more than we anticipated, leading finally to some tangible payments and a reduction in the industrial tension.
At the end of that week, I bumped into the same SMO in front of the Administration Block. I will never forget his puzzled facial expression. This time, he approached the matter from a totally different perspective – “You guys are making my government very unpopular. I know I raised issues earlier about your commitment but I think it is okay now. You need to tone down…Please stop speaking to the public!”
Today, the jury still seems to be out as to how much effort doctors need to put into constructively engaging the Ghanaian public and whether or not we sufficiently leverage our media connections to strategically attract public goodwill to pressure government. In the Christmas of 2004 however, junior doctors sent Komla Dumor a card to say thank you.
About a month ago, US-based Dr. Korshie Dumor – my senior and Komla’s younger brother—had dinner with Prof. Fred Binka, Vice Chancellor of the University for Health and Allied Sciences and me. We were plotting for Ghana’s health. I asked how Komla was doing and to extend my greetings. Alas! In the tragic post 18th January 2014 narrative, I wish it be known that Junior Doctors are eternally grateful for the opportunity Komla Dumor gave us to tell our story, gain traction and win some hearts along the way.
By: Sodzi Sodzi-Tettey
24th January, 2014