Honour debt to health workers

Nurses salaries are paid from our national taxes. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

There is a way to keep any issue from ever being settled, any party from ever being held accountable, and any wrongdoing from ever being corrected. It’s enormously clever. Magicians do it, worldwide.What you do is you do the thing that causes a consequence, but while you are doing it you distract everyone.

Magicians draw our eyes to scarves, and boxes, while, quietly, off-view fixing the result.

We call it ‘keeping eyes off the ball’. If no one is looking at the goal kick when it happens, because 40 cheer leaders are suddenly dancing off-schedule at the other end of the pitch, then who is to say if it was a penalty?

Sometimes, it’s also called ‘lights and mirrors’. If you reflect an issue off a dozen surfaces, introduce a mass of extraneous and irrelevant information, you can keep everyone from thinking about where the issue really is.

However, in Kenya, it’s not so clever. It’s routine, as the shattering of a narrative into a thousand threads of irrelevancy and extraneous detail. Yet that lack of dedication to cause and consequence is ugly in its results.

For what it permits is an environment where genuine issues of administrative failure, breach of due process, or colossal political issues simply never get addressed at all. And so it is with nurses, and their pay. The change - nearly a decade ago now, if one counts from the date of our new constitution - from the ministry employing nurses to the county governments employing nurses was fraught in many ways. It raised questions about who would set pay scales.

Could we see counties embarking onto differing and competing pay rates for medics, teachers, police and the like?

There were other challenges too, such as who was liable for public service pensions or benefits as staff moved from being a government responsibility to being the responsibility of 47 counties. There was pain on setting up payroll systems, the counties simply weren’t geared up to running establishments of thousands of staff.

But all of these matters were eventually addressed. And in 2017, the nurses’ national representatives agreed new pay scales for nurses with the county government representatives and the government, to come into force in July 2018.Only then, the pay rises did not happen.

The non-delivery was not because of the counties. Indeed, hats off to some of them, Mombasa, Migori, Machakos, that are paying the new pay scales now. However, they are diverting funds to do it. Nurses salaries are paid from our national taxes, not from the parking ticket income and land rates that county governments collect.

And the Salaries and Remuneration Commission has failed to settle the amounts due to the nurses – via the counties – since July 2018.It has a reason. It can’t afford it. And that is where the lights and mirrors kick in. For that’s huge.

Did the government know it wouldn’t have the money to cover nurses’ salaries when it agreed to the new pay scales in 2017? Or do we have a government that makes agreements, but doesn’t really.

Does the sovereign agreement of our nation amount to: ‘I made an agreement, but not really, I’ve kindof changed my mind, I can’t afford it now compared to other things I want more, or I spent the money elsewhere, or oops, I forgot to budget for this one, so even though you’ve kept your part of the deal, I’m pulling out’? It’s a new take on sovereign risk.

But, actually, we have been doing these dances forever. The ‘we agree a public sector pay rise and then don’t pay it’ game. So, let’s stop. It’s a lot of drama. A lot of disappointment., A lot of wasted breath and effort. There is one story.

We have a government that cannot afford to meet its nurses’ salary obligations because it has too little funds or too little fund management capacity to do so. There isn’t anything else going on. And if we want to write on Twitter how the nurses are bad to not work on not being paid then for sure maybe we can throw rocks anywhere. But a broke government is a crisis.