Doctors treating Covid-19 patients in Sierra Leone went on strike on Thursday over unpaid bonuses, leaving patients in some of the main treatment centres without care, healthworkers said.
The strike marks an escalation in a row between doctors and government over what doctors say is a misuse of funds for the coronavirus response in the small West African country, and a lack of protection and compensation for healthworkers.
Doctors say that they were promised hazard pay for their work during the outbreak, but that the pay has not come.
Government officials could not be reached for comment.
A spokesman for the coronavirus response team previously told Reuters the government was carrying out an audit of health workers to verify who was directly involved in the response.
Since the outbreak began, around 20 percent of Sierra Leone's total coronavirus expenditure, or nearly $850 000, went to procuring 30 new SUVs and 230 motorbikes for the Emergency Operations Center, Office of National Security, police force, and military, according to procurement reports released by Sierra Leone's finance ministry on May 22.
The only medical equipment listed on that procurement report was eight ventilators, which cost the finance ministry approximately $85 285.
Meanwhile, the health ministry's Covid-19 situation reports routinely describe a lack of funds to pay for contact tracers. Doctors complain of a lack of protective equipment like gloves, masks and coveralls vital to prevent infections spreading from patients to hospital staff.
Of the some 1 500 Covid-19 cases confirmed in Sierra Leone, 160 have been health workers. The country's ranks of medical staff were already hit hard during an Ebola outbreak from 2014-16 that killed 250 medical workers out of a total of only around 4 000.
"No patient showing Covid-like symptoms will be treated by any doctor until we have the support we need," said S.K. Jusu, the head doctor at Fourah Bay College, a school whose dormitories have been transformed into the country's largest Covid-19 treatment centre on a hill overlooking the capital Freetown.
No new patients were being accepted on Thursday because the five doctors at the 200-bed facility were all on strike, leaving community health workers and nurses to care for the sick. There were no critically ill patients on site, Jusu said.
Jusu and other staff acknowledged that this could lead to a rise in cases in the community.
"It is going to be a hell of a problem if this thing isn't quickly resolved," said senior community health officer Kiya Conteh who was coordinating lunch deliveries for patients. "Our people need treatment. If they're not treated here, what can we expect them to do?"