Ebola hospital workers down tools over pay in 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 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.

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.

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 here is bursting with around 80 patients and new cases arrive every day.

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

On Wednesday however, 14 suspected patients were admitted to the high-risk zone 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 the 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.”

Ebola support staff say they face stigmatisation for doing their jobs. Many on strike at Kenema refused to give their full names because their own families either do not know or disapprove 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,” said nurse Donnell Tholley, 25, who came to Kenema from Freetown to work in the Ebola ward.

One young nurse said her fiancé 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 had left when striking workers began calling sick Ebola patients to come out from the high-risk into the low-risk zone, according to nurse Donnell Tholley.

“I told the patients do not come out, that will not solve the problem,” he told Al Jazeera by telephone. The police were called and cleared the workers, deploying 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.

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