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Your Heart's On The Left

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Jesse McLaren is a physician, activist and blogger, who like Virchow believes that if medicine is to accomplish its great task, it must intervene in political and social life. He blogs at www.yourheartsontheleft.blogspot.com, and tweets @HeartsOnTheLeft.

Act now to support Egyptian hospital workers

| June 7, 2011
Act now to support Egyptian hospital workers

The Egyptian health-care system only receives 3.5 per cent of GDP. Doctors work under state-controlled unions led by corrupt officials with ties to the Mubarak regime, which have prevented them from advocating for better health care and working conditions. Most Egyptian doctors work in public hospitals or charity clinics, working up to 100 hours a week for less than $3/day -- forcing many to look for other work or leave the country. But the Egyptian revolution has united doctors with other hospital workers in a movement for change.

On June 4, 2011, I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Mohamed Shafiq in Cairo, Egypt. He is a member of the Higher Strike Committee of the Doctors' Strike. As he explains in the interview transcript below, Egyptian doctors joined the revolution in Tahrir Square, and through the process became politicized. In May they organize two national strikes -- demanding an end to corruption in the Health Ministry, a fair wage structure for all workers in Egypt, hospital security, and an increase in the budget for the Ministry of Health. Egyptian doctors are also uniting with other hospitals workers -- nurses, porters, and technicians -- in independent trade unions to push for better health care and working conditions, and this new model is starting to spread. On June 10 they will march to Tahrir Square.

But the military regime is trying to undermine the doctor strikes and the independent trade unions to divide the movement for change, restricting the Egyptian revolution to political reforms and preventing the social and economic demands that are at the heart of it. Now is a key time to support Egyptian doctors and the emergence of independent hospital trade unions, and their united efforts to improve health care for all Egyptians, working conditions for all hospital workers, and wages for all workers.

Act now to support Egyptian hospital workers:

1) Send solidarity messages to canada.egypt.solidarity@gmail.com. Messages will be translated, compiled and sent to hospital workers, and those received by Thursday night will be sent by Friday when they return to Tahrir Square.

2) Ask your trade union or community organization to do the same.

3) For updates from Canadians building solidarity with Egyptian workers visit the Facebook group "Solidarity with Egyptian trade unions":http://on.fb.me/j7z5Eo

4) For updates on international solidarity, visit the Solidarity with Middle East and North African Workers Network at http://menasolidaritynetwork.com

5) For the transcript of the interview with Dr. Mohamed Shafiq, read below.

Can you describe the role of physicians during the Egyptian revolution in Tahrir Square?

The physicians were the only profession that joined Tahrir Square in a collective way. We were not just protesters, we made six field hospitals in Tahrir Square and joined the revolution from day one until the removal of Mubarak. We joined in a way that were helping the protesters, healing the wounds, the casualties we were removing from Tahrir Square to other hospitals. Some of our friends in the general hospitals were protecting them. In the field hospitals we managed to keep all the protesters in the field safe who suffered form high blood pressure, from diabetes, any kind of disease we received them and gave them medication. We had many contributions and donations form people all over Egypt and continued our work until the step down of Mubarak.

Can you describe the impact of the revolution on the physicians?

The impact is just revolutionary. Doctors used to study a lot of time. We spend most of our time in hospitals, we don't get in contact with reality that much, but it was out duty. There were many casualties of our citizens in Tahrir Square, and associations decided rapidly that we would help to save our citizens. What we saw while healing the protesters was a revolutionary experience.

I will give one that I had myself. There was this protester who was killed by a sniper bullet in the head, so we searched for his mobile and checked for his brother. So we called him and he came to receive his body. The very next day his brother came to the field hospital with an injury of the skull. So I asked him, you received your brother just yesterday, you are married, you have children. He said, really I didn't care about politics, I don't know about Mubarak, but I know that my brother was right and he died for this cause and I will continue to raise this cause myself. And he mended his skull and went back to join the protests.

So we had many, many, many experiences. We saw people who lost an eye and then they go back and fight. We saw people, he received his son -- this is story a friend told me -- the father came to take the body of his dead son, and after two or three days he came back for his second son. So the experience we have taken was shocking, just revolutionary.

You recently organized strikes. Can you talk about the strikes and their demands, both in terms of physicians and for the broader health care system?

This is the first strike to be in the Egyptian country [national strike] ever. We started in our syndicate on the 25th of March and we had some demands due to our revolutionary experience. Our demands were democratic and social demands. The first was the removal of the Minister of Health, which is a prominent figure of the NDP [Mubarak's party]. He was the director of a hospital which we saw with our own eyes was carrying rocks to join those who attacked us and our brothers in Tahrir. We wanted to remove him because he cannot be in a revolutionary government. We also wanted to remove all the corrupt figures in the Ministry of Health who conducted an organized corruption of the Ministry of Health and the health of poor Egyptians during the reign of Mubarak.

Our second demand is a just and fair wage structure for all the workers of Egypt, physicians included. Our third was to provide security in hospitals because we work with no security whatsoever. Our fourth and most important demand was to increase the budget of the Ministry of Health from 3.5 per cent of the total budget to 15 per cent of the total budget, which is our main fight now because we think what is happening in Egypt is some sort of tragedy or comedy, I don't know which.

We have no supplies in hospitals, we have nothing to offer, the health care service is ridiculous. People are dying because we don't have a bed in the ICU. They don't have the money to buy medicine. And we are just pretending as if we are giving real services. This is something that we have protested against several years before, but now we are raising our voice.

So after the ignorance from the government we decided to make a partial strike which would only be for the outpatient clinic, not the ICU or emergency or emergency surgery. And we did it twice, on the 10th of May and the 17th of May. And in spite of all the persecution from the ministry, from the government, it included 85 per cent of all hospitals and health-care centres in Egypt. We have several experiences, that in the strike day we greeted the patients with chocolates and juice, and tried to explain why we are not seeing them today and they should come tomorrow because we want to improve the services given to them, that the medicine that is given to them is poor quality and that we won't accept this injustice anymore. Because the victims we have seen in Tahrir Square have given us a message. They died for this cause.

Can you talk about the challenge of building solidarity form physicians to the revolution and other causes, and the challenge of building solidarity amongst other groups for physicians?

This is the main issue because we are now facing many difficulties. We have been fought by the regime. We have been portrayed as traitors for the revolution, striking against the benefits of the patients and their rights to receive medication and treatment, which is very ridiculous our demands our demands is in the heart for those patients. But you know the media is very powerful, the mass media is a very powerful weapon and is used against us. So we are trying to reach out more for the people.

We are trying to make contacts with our colleagues, other health-care providers. There are strict divisions between physicians, nurses, porters, technicians. We are trying now to break all these limitations. The independent trade unions starting in every hospital is a good start, and we are just beginning. On the 10th of June, this month, we are preparing to launch a march to Tahrir Square with doctors and other health-care providers, and we are trying to call for all the medical forces, civil society and of course our patients to join us in Tahrir Square.

Because the coming budget is still the same, it's still 3.5 per cent. Still for Egyptian citizen health is not cared for. But all they [the military regime] care for is security and police forces. So we are trying to change, otherwise nothing we've done will be benefit for the normal citizen, who does not care about elections or constitution, but he cares about getting a decent meal and decent health-care service.

Can you talk about your new independent trade union and the relationship between different hospital workers?

There was a complete separation between the physicians, nurses, technicians. Everybody had his role. Don't co-operate or chat, even though we work for long hours together. So the idea that we work together to fight for the same rights is a bit bizarre. It just started after the revolution, it is spreading by the minute.

In our trade union we had a good experience. What we did is make the consultant, the specialist physicians sit at the same table as the porters and the nurses and the technicians. And we decided that we vote how we would manage our hospital. We voted to kick out our old hospital manager and to elect a new one. And we voted, everyone of the profession had only a single vote. And we fought that those who humiliate the workers, the porters, would be expelled from the union. And we fought and won this fight. We have changed our manager and we have elected the one that everybody selected. Not only the doctor, everyone selected the new manager. And we have a union that now runs that hospital how it should be run, and decides what to do with the money we have.

We no more have a manager who just orders and we obey. No more have a consultant who shouts at the nurse or shouts at the porter or a manual worker. This spirit, which I find the most inspiring, is one of the most refreshing experiences I've had. I've been to Tahrir Square for 18 days, but I have never felt as the first day that the council met, where the gynecological consultant, the head of the department sat, and behind him was a manual worker, and they were debating how the money of the hospital should be spent. This is a feeling I have never had before, and this is what we have in our hospital, and I hope we transfer this to different hospitals.

We have now about six independent trade unions in hospitals in Egypt, and we have about 700 or 800 hospitals in Egypt. What we are trying to do now is transfer this experience to every hospital in Egypt. It is already taking place and already arguments are going in every hospital on how things should be run, how to deal with the shortage of supplies, how to deal with the escape of doctors from shifts because we are not paid, how to deal with the corrupt old managers, how to deal with officials and deputes of the managers and the managers who are taking thousands of Egyptian pounds while we are taking pennies, how to decrease what they are taking and increase what we are taking. That's why we pushed in the syndicate for a minimum and a maximum wage, and for a wage structure not only for doctors and nurses and health care providers but for all the workers of Egypt.

What can people outside Egypt do to support Egyptian hospital workers?

This interview is a start. We are trying to reverse the bad propaganda that is made against us in the doctors strike in Egypt. We are trying to reverse this picture. We are trying to reach the most backwards sections of the Egyptian population -- which is agitated by this propaganda, which in turn agitate some of our colleagues -- to call for a complete strike. Not a partial strike but a complete strike, which of course we can after it gain all our rights in a couple of hours, but of course there will be many victims, our own citizens, and we are against this utterly. And so what you can do, and every union and health care provider in the world, is to give us letters of solidarity, come to us with Tahrir Square on the 10th of June, if it's possible. Whatever support we can have will be beneficial.



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