A question of public health
The ongoing Public Health Inspectors’ (PHIs) strike demanding more powers to combat the spread of COVID-19 entered a new phase when the PHIs Union Vice President, S.A.U.T. Kulathilaka, announced that its inspectors will be reporting sick from Friday (24). Boycotting work last week, PHIs have said that no acceptable solution has been provided to their demands by either the State or the Health Ministry for a broader mandate in order to combat the pandemic.
The PHIs resorted to the strike action following a statement made by the Health Minister who had said that PHIs will not be given any powers to enforce the gazetted COVID-19 health guidelines for the upcoming polls in order to prevent any inconvenience that might be caused to the general public. The PHI Union had said that its members were disappointed by the Minister’s alleged attempt to smear PHIs’ work to save lives with just minimum facilities provided, without even considering the risks to their own lives with no legal protection as a ‘public inconvenience’. Moreover, PHI Union Chairman Upul Rohana alleged that the Government had failed to gazette a single law to prevent the pandemic under the Quarantine Act and that only the gazette related to cremation of COVID-19 deaths had been authorised so far. He added that it was the PHIs who constantly ensured that the public had adequate grocery supplies at home and carried regular health inspections.
The current status of COVID-19 in Sri Lanka stands at 2,752 confirmed cases, 2,064 recovered cases and 11 deaths. As of last week the Welisara Navy Cluster has been confirmed fully controlled with its last cases discharged after making full recoveries. Furthermore, authorities said that the Kandakadu cluster is under control with all contacts been traced and tracked. The general public seems to follow the guidelines by wearing masks, washing hands, and with the exception of certain public transport, is fairly aware of social distancing.
Nobody denies the important role of PHIs in this pandemic. However, certain parties view the demands for more powers as unreasonable. The Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA), while acknowledging the PHIs’ right to voice its grievances, severely criticised their action and suggested several proposals to the authorities to stave off any adverse effects of the strike. Accordingly, the GMOA said that all required facilities should be provided to all Medical Officers of Health (MOH) in order to provide a better service to the public and added that more MBBS doctors should be attached to the required MOH as another effective solution to the issue. The Association also suggested identifying substitutes and using them under the direct supervision and technical advice of MOHs. While the GMOA’s statement looks like a solution on the surface, observers cannot help, but see an obvious power struggle between healthcare entities which is uncalled for when the country is faced with a pandemic.
Unionists say that they have been compelled to resort to the strike action mainly due to several legal issues that had arisen. Kulathilaka said that two PHIs who were on duty during the lock down have been slapped with lawsuits. While it is unfortunate to be sued while performing one’s duties there is no denying that many factors must have led to the PHI body to feel under-appreciated for their services during the pandemic and is the sort of thing authorities should be aware of. Providing incentives as well as protection is the responsibility of the department in charge which needs to relay progress and complaints alike to administrators. Sometimes issues can be completely lost or misrepresented in bureaucracies. The under-performance of State entities is no new news to us citizens and in fact the growing majority of people in this country views strike actions by Government workers negatively and are more in favour of direct and thorough command structures like in the Military – who many agree have shown excellent resolve and commitment in curbing the impact of COVID-19.
In addition, authorities also should carefully consider any negative perception the public may have with PHIs. As mentioned before, nobody in their right mind say that the tasks assigned to PHIs or that the post itself is useless. However, people have real doubts regarding certain bad eggs in the Inspectors corps who abuse their power for unlawful gains. Even the PHIs dark khaki uniform was introduced so, that scammers couldn’t come in plain clothes and pose as Inspectors to exhort homeowners and businesses. And given the public’s temperament during the lockdowns it was obvious that certain PHIs would face some difficulties.
In conclusion, this issue needs to be approached with close cooperation of all parties. The PHIs tasks are vital for Sri Lanka’s wellbeing during this pandemic. Although almost everyone can agree that the strike action is a bit much, the Ministry of Health should be more attentive to find a compromise during this juncture or risk the problem escalating.