The plight and flight of Nigeria’s healthcare workers

Kenechukwu Obiezu

Kenechukwu Obiezu

Amidst the rubble and rumble of Nigerias crumbling health care system, it is Nigerias healthcare workers that have been caught in the storm as Nigerian children dying from avoidable and curable illnesses reserve their last anguished looks for those who care for them as they close their eyes to the world.

In many Nigerian hospitals, helplessness hugs haplessness to leave many patients and health workers clinging on to dear life, the fragile but indestructible thread that hope is, and the bonds forged in the extremely thin strip between life and death.

Amidst Nigeria`s struggle to elevate its healthcare industry to a world-class one and the shocking conditions of work for workers in the industry, an exodus is afoot. It has been for a while.

With the sirens of greener pastures abroad blaring more insistently, and a government staffed full by people enamoured with medical tourism abroad, there is hardly any interest in arresting the decline in the health sector at home. The result is that many health workers who live here are angling to leave, and those who have left have no intention of coming back. Ever.

With Nigerian health workers always swapping places on the strike-action podium with members of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, in 2021, men of the Department of State Services reportedly scuttled an interview holding in Abuja for medical doctors who were seeking to escape the country  to Saudi Arabia of all places. The interview was broken up but the country had been smeared. And now, damning statistics have emerged.

According to information obtained recently from the Nursing and Midwifery Council of the United Kingdom, no fewer than 7,256 trained nurses from Nigeria relocated to the United Kingdom between March 2021 and March 2022. According to the data, 2,796 Nigeria nurses migrated to the UK between March 2017 and March 2018 while there was an influx of 3,021 Nigerian nurses to the UK between March 2018 and March 2019.

The Council noted a slight increase between March 2019 and March 2020 when a total of 3,684 Nigerian nurses migrated to the UK. In 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic,4,310 Nigerian nurses registered with the  council between March 2020 and March 2021.

However, the Council witnessed the highest rate of registration in the past five years when a total of 7,256 Nigerian trained nurses registered between March 2021 and March 2020. Nigeria came only after India and the Philippines as the country with the highest number of trained nurses registered in the UK.

There is  no coincidence whatsoever. It is not for nothing that Nigerian nurses are packing up and leaving the country as if something is after them. It is not just nurses though. Doctors are also leaving in droves with the shocking conditions of work here snapping at their heels.

Experts in the health sector have always expressed alarm at the export of human capital from the healthcare sector. Just as poverty and conflicts continue to force Africans into undertaking dangerous trips across the Mediterranean to Europe, poor working conditions continue to force healthcare workers from Nigeria into hasty departures for countries where the conditions of work are better.

The COVID-19 pandemic which struck in 2020 sending shockwaves around the world exposed the need for a robust healthcare industry  in every country of the world. The pandemic caught many African countries including Nigeria flatfooted and saw  governments everywhere scrambling to stem the surge of  infections and deaths.

The pandemic also showed firsthand the frontline dangers faced by those who care for others. Yet, in spite of all these, not much has been done to motivate them and keep them properly equipped to carry out their critical life-saving work.

But it surprises only little that Nigerias political class pays only scant attention to the sorry state of the healthcare industry in the country. For a country that loses over five hundred billion naira annually on medical tourism to countries that are otherwise backwater countries, it is as clear as day that the priorities of many members of Nigerias political class who form the bulk of medical tourists to other countries lie elsewhere.

There is no magic formula to it. As long as the conditions here are not made to match what obtains in countries serious about their healthcare, healthcare workers in Nigeria will continue to pack up and leave the country. In the face of abysmally poor working conditions, any appeal to patriotism is bound to fall on deaf ears.

As they go, it is the poorest Nigerians who will be left at the mercy of a healthcare system shorn of infrastructure and qualified personnel.

Kene Obiezu,

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