YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Recent strikes by public health workers in the Republic of Benin have Catholic bishops worried, as health workers, for nearly a month now, have been asking the government for better pay and improved working conditions as well as a reform of the health sector.

According to the representative of health sector trade unions, Adolphe Oussou, the government has systematically ignored their demands.

“In every country, if you allow social partners to go on strike, you have to call them back to the negotiation table so the two parties can reach an understanding,” he told Benin WebTV.

A near-absence of dialogue between the authorities and health sector workers has led to strike actions that have crippled the country’s health sector, putting the lives of thousands on the line.

The leader of the NGO, Benin Diaspora Assistance, Médard Koudébi says Benin’s health crisis is more visible in its mortuaries.

“No mortuary meets the norms in Benin,” he told La Nouvelle Tribune. He said the sector isn’t even regulated, and poverty drives many people to abandon their corpses in the mortuaries for fear of paying exorbitant mortuary and hospital bills.

“The lack of hygiene conditions in many mortuaries means that several people get contaminated. If mortuary conditions were respected, 25,000 lives would be saved every year, and 120,000 new infections would be avoided,” he told France 24.

Catholic bishops have expressed dismay at the depressing health situation in the country.

In a statement following a plenary general assembly that took place from October 22-25, 2017 in Porto-Novo, the bishops said they were “particularly touched by the strike by health sector workers that has been going on for some weeks with dramatic consequences for the sick.”

La Nouvelle Tribune quotes pregnant Chantal Assogbain at the Abomey-Calavi hospital as saying that she was turned back by midwives on account of the strike actions.

“I came here for prenatal consultation. Midwives told me to go back because they are on strike, but I don’t have the financial means to go consult in a private hospital,” she said.

“We are suffering,” she added.

The bishops say such complaints are frequent, with many people dying as a consequence of the lack of even the minimum care. They have called on the government of President Patrice Talon and social partners to resume dialogue “to speedily come out of the crisis.”

“On no account should patients be abandoned to their fate,” the bishops emphasized.

Reforming the system

In 2016, Talon set up a technical commission in charge of reforming Benin’s healthcare system. It’s called for institutional reform of the healthcare system as well as reforms both in the functioning and organization of Benin’s healthcare system.

According to the rapporteur of the commission, Justin Sossou, a deep analysis of the country’s healthcare system revealed that sector governance is almost non-existent; there’s a near-absence of regulations governing healthcare professionals; and anarchy prevails in private healthcare practice, with blistering poverty denying scores of citizens access to healthcare.

Added to these problems are the catastrophic management of human and financial resources, as well as the over concentration of resources at the central services to the detriment of peripheral health structures.

In the face of all this, the commission has proposed that all legal and regulatory instruments relating to the healthcare sector should be updated to meet present day challenges and that all national policies and strategies on primary healthcare and hospital medicine be updated.

Additionally, the commission called for improved governance, the training and deployment of qualified personnel, improved pay for health sector workers and the inclusion of socio-cultural dimensions in defining health sector strategies and policies.

The commission concludes that such reforms will also entail the restructuring of the Ministry of Health and the creation of a structure to regulate the health sector in Benin.

But health sector workers have been complaining that they were not part of the commission and therefore their views have not been factored into it. They have therefore been asking the government to hand over the draft proposals to them so they could have their input, before it is forwarded to Talon.

A deeper social problem

The health sector crisis in Benin is, however, just a small part of a deeper social crisis. Poverty and misery, according to the bishops, form part of the daily lives of a majority of the Beninese population.

“Many of Benin’s men and women live in permanent pain, and are incapable of taking care of the daily need of their families. Such a situation cannot favor social cohesion, the guarantee for all development,” the bishops wrote.

According to the World Bank, poverty remains widespread in Benin, with 40.1 percent of the country’s 10.9 million people living below the poverty line.