By Asoka N.I. Ekanayaka –
The latest despicable threat by the GMOA to reportedly launch the “biggest strike ever in the country’s history” represents a crude piece of trade union megalomania. It is tantamount to a kind of “medical thuggary” that is a disgrace to the medical profession. In our day and age doctors (prosperous members of a once noble profession) and University students (unashamed young dependents on public charity ) have become strange bedfellows in launching disruptive “strikes” that cause enormous suffering and inconvenience to the public. The fact that doctors (by virtue of professional obligation) owe a debt of service to the millions who are sick and dying, and students (by virtue of their neediness) a debt of gratitude to the millions who pay for their education – only underline the absurdity of such strikes.
Unfortunately Sri Lankans seem to have an amazing capacity to bow their heads and humbly endure such abuses however wicked and irrational by such groups who in pursuance of their selfish vested interests, particular ideological hang up, or political agenda don’t give a damn for the public interest. One wonders whether deeply embedded in the psyche of the Sri Lankan masses is a primeval fatalism brought on by belief in Karma that makes them resigned to exploitation, on the basis that since bad things happen because they were destined to happen anyway there is nothing anyone can do about it. Otherwise one would expect that by now millions of people in this country fed to the teeth by their striking tormentors, would be crying “enough is enough” and calling for government action to in one way or another prohibit the scandal of strikes by doctors and students.
Indeed from the perspective of governance It is now clear that strikes by predatory doctors and university students have become a serious impediment to good governance, desirable reforms and the enforcement of order and discipline in the health and higher education sectors.
Doctors have repeatedly shown a diabolical tendency to use draconian trade union power in pursuance of a selfish agenda demanding unrealistic perks and privileges, while intimidating the government and interfering in matters of state policy that are completely outside their remit. Their protests over SAITM, ETCA, budget proposals etc. are recent examples of such arrogant abuse of power. The extraordinary power wielded by doctors enabling them to force the hand of governments to act against the public interest, derives from their freedom to strike at will and hold the public to ransom. The terrible hardships inflicted on the sick and suffering by striking doctors (with the possibility of patients dying due to direct or indirect medical neglect) inevitably puts intolerable pressure on governments to compromise principle and concede to doctors on any terms so as not to prolong public agony. That puts doctors in a winning position against the rest of society every time, however unjustified their cause.
For the GMOA to cynically claim that their strikes are for the ultimate good of the public whom they consciously penalize is sheer arrogance and adds insult to injury. For anyone to imply that the sick and dying might willingly accept the denial of treatment because they too support the doctor’s cause – is the height of lunacy. Most people (especially the sick) in this country don’t care a hoot about SAITM. Indeed they would’nt even know what those letters stand for ! Patients are neither masochists nor martyrs that they should be happy to endure yet more pain and suffering in support of the selfish agenda of doctors. Such fantasies reflect the self righteous blindness of the medical establishment and how out of touch with reality many doctors have become in our society !
Nor should anyone be deluded by the glib reassurance of doctors that their strikes will not imperil the lives of patients because as a generous concession to the great Hippocrates and out of lofty compassion for the toiling masses they have condescended to maintain essential services in ICU, emergency, and paediatric units. The truth is that the actual number of people who die, suffer some complication, or whose health is in some way compromised directly or indirectly as a result of a doctor’s strike is an imponderable that is incapable of statistical documentation. For example we will never know the number of people who having developed some sinister symptom at home died, suffered some complication, or whose eventual recovery was compromised because they were put off from promptly going to hospital by the knowledge that doctors were on strikes and fear that services might be restricted.
In the case of university students their ability to strike and boycott classes with impunity makes it impossible to effect necessary policy changes in higher education and maintain campus discipline. The punishment of students for grave offenses like the torture of new entrants (ragging), invariably provokes disruptive strikes instigated by aggressive militant student unions. Such strikes bring academic programs to a standstill intimidating university authorities into backing down so as to restore normalcy whatever the sacrifice of principle. Furthermore the power of students instigated by politically oriented student unions to retaliate with strikes paralyzing academic programmes across the universities, seriously limits the ability of governments to institute enlightened reforms in the higher education sector.
Alongside the above considerations there is the abomination of ugly posters and placards that pollute hospital premises when doctors are on strike in contempt of the rights of worried patients to a tranquil non confrontational hospital environment. Nor must we forget the chaos and disruption resulting from rowdy street demonstrations and public meetings that accompany strikes by doctors and university students, with rioting mayhem and traffic blocks on public roads causing severe inconvenience to the general public
For the foregoing reasons there is a strong case for action to prohibit strikes by doctors (and possibly other hospital workers) as well as university students. Apart from pragmatic considerations there is a strong intellectual and philosophical justification for such an initiative based on some important principles.
In the case of doctors the prevention and treatment of disease is a life and death issue. As a vocation the practice of medicine is dominantly a life and death concern. In this respect the medical profession stands alongside those in the police, armed services, and fire services who traditionally do not resort to strike action in a civilized society, because to do so would jeopardize the lives of people. If at all doctors have a greater and more immediate impact on life and death in the community.
In the case of university students, they are the recipients of free education at the expense of tax payers. University students are not workers. Consequently they are not entitled to trade union rights including the right to strike. Therefore so called “student strikes” are a monstrous absurdity tantamount to the gratuitous abuse of public charity.
Accordingly there is an incontrovertible logical argument and a strong basis in principle for firmly prohibiting strikes by doctors (and possibly other hospital workers) as well as strikes involving the boycott of classes by students in state Universities. Such prohibition might be instituted in different ways. However one mechanism that may have considerable clout would be appropriate legislation through an Act of Parliament. Such legislation would have enormous public support, indeed overwhelming endorsement if it ever came to a referendum ! It remains for the government to put the public interest first, and take firm action to prohibit the curse of cruel and disruptive strikes by those who thereby make themselves the enemies of the people.
*Prof. A.N.I. Ekanayaka, Emeritus Professor & former Dean Faculty of Dental Science, Peradeniya