Ebola hospital workers walk out over pay

Staff at major district hospital in Sierra Leone say they have not been paid for two weeks despite huge risk involved.

Kenema, Sierra Leone – Local workers have gone on strike in an overcrowded Ebola ward at a major district hospital in Sierra Leone’s disease-stricken east over claims the government is failing to pay them.

Up to 80 workers crowded the entrance compound to the hospital on Friday, deserting their posts and bringing operations at the Ebola treatment ward to a standstill. The workers were peaceful but frustrated.

The action comes after several other strikes at the same hospital by staff protesting poor working conditions, infection rates among colleagues, and rates of pay they say do not make up for the risks they take.

The workers were recruited nationally to boost staff numbers at Kenema Government Hospital, where they operate inside a tented “high-risk” zone as nurses and support staff tasked with treating the sick, disinfecting contaminated equipment, cleaning faeces, vomit and blood, and removing and burying dead bodies.

“I started working here one month ago and we have been paid nothing for the last two weeks,” Umaru, a hygienist, told Al Jazeera. “We have stopped everybody from working until we receive our risk incentive.”

The hospital is a critical facility catering to a population of several hundred thousand and began admitting the first Ebola cases in Sierra Leone because it was thought to be the only place with appropriate equipment.

The Ebola facility was set up early this summer on the same site as ordinary medical operations but since the outbreak began most other non-Ebola wards stand deserted and many workers have fled.

Staff deaths

Remaining staff say more than 38 nurses and doctors have been infected and died at this site since the outbreak began, among them renowned physician Dr Sheik Umar Khan.

When I left to come here my children begged me don't go. They cried, 'Mummy if you go you die.'

by - Nurse

Ebola support staff are supposed to be paid 500,000SLL ($110) per week but have been working for free in Kenema for the past two weeks.

The Ebola facility there is over capacity with about 80 patients being treated and new cases arriving every day.

The World Health Organization (WHO), which provides an advisory role to the government, recommended Kenema take no new admissions as of last week when one of their international physicians was infected.

But 14 suspected patients were admitted to the high-risk zone on Wednesday before they could be tested for the disease because there was nowhere else to put them and no one had called ahead to find out if there was space.

“This illustrates the problem in this country,” said Nyka Alexander, spokesperson for WHO in Sierra Leone.

“We suggest no further admissions but if people are sick compassion will compel you to admit them. But there are not enough beds.”

Negotiations expected

Ebola support staff also said they faced stigmatisation for doing their jobs. Many on strike at Kenema refused to give their full names because their own families either did not know about or disapproved of them working with Ebola patients.

“They say we are infected, they provoke us in the street, they think we are the carriers of Ebola,” 25-year-old nurse Donnell Tholley, who came to Kenema from Freetown to work in the Ebola ward, said.

One young nurse said her fiancé had left her because she took a job on the ward while her colleague, a mother of two called Alice, has kept her role a secret from her husband.

“When I left to come here my children begged me don’t go. They cried, ‘Mummy if you go you die,'” she said.

Asked why he continues to work at the ward, head nurse Issa French told Al Jazeera: “We can’t run away, where will we run to? This is Sierra Leone and we are serving our people, we have love for our people, how can we just run away like that?”

The situation deteriorated at Kenema hospital on Friday after Al Jazeera left when striking workers began calling sick Ebola patients to come out from the high-risk into the low-risk zone, according to Tholley.

“I told the patients do not come out, that will not solve the problem,” he told Al Jazeera by telephone, adding that police were then called and cleared the workers before assigning officers to guard the entrance to the ward.

“The government, the UN and WHO have said they will negotiate with the workers on Monday,” Tholley said.