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IN THE CANDID CORNER – Callous and uncaring?

Matthew D. Farley

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When your neighbour’s house is on fire, wet yours.In spite of being involved in industrial relations matters over the years, the recent impasse between the Barbados Association of Medical Practitioners and the QEH board has left me very worried. This country has a long history of vibrant but stable industrial relations. I vividly recall the days of the late Frank Walcott at the helm of the trade union movement. There was a sense in which one felt that whatever industrial problems surfaced, common sense would always prevail. This tradition of a mature cadre of industrial relations practitioners has continued under Sir Roy Trotman. Even when persons in the labour movement and politicians are alleged to be sharing the same bed, there is seldom a sense that there is an unhealthy rush to take industrial action.Wooing public support in industrial relations matters is a very critical aspect of moving to a resolution. While it is good for trade unions to flex their muscles, without informed public support the battle is often lost before it is won. I am not myself convinced that the Barbadian public is fully cognisant of the core issues that explain why the nation’s health services were put in serious jeopardy. For the first time in a long while a deadly phobia was literally injected into the veins of the country. I personally feared getting ill. In fact, I received an email that said:  “If you getting sick, you better be dying or else!” So there was a sense of morbid fear that if you got sick and were not near death, you were not likely to get medical attention. So what were the issues for which the ailing were penalised? It is alleged that one consultant was fired and another was involved in litigation to avert a similar fate. Issues of due process were also raised, along with concern about the general treatment being meted out to medical practitioners. On the other hand, the board of the QEH came out blazing, accusing the doctors of not understanding the basic tenets of process and the language of the very articulate chairman did not inject any balm into the crisis, since he too spoke of the other side lacking integrity and honesty. In fact, he doubted whether it would ever be possible to negotiate with BAMP. In my considered opinion, the approach adopted on both sides reflected a measure of intransigence that always makes negotiating difficult, if not impossible. While I respect the right of doctors to defend their cause, however others might perceive it, I was unimpressed with the speed at which the industrial action was intensified to include all polyclinics, the geriatric and psychiatric hospitals. In the view of many, the action was seen as callous and uncaring. These are the last kind of characteristics we want to attribute to our doctors. From my experience, the role of the media is central to the success or failure of any industrial relations impasse. It is a tightrope that must be walked carefully. On the one hand, it is the media that informs the public of the key issues at the heart of the problem. On the other hand, if it appears that one side is negotiating in the media, the other might claim bad faith. The lack of timeliness in the Department of Radiology, the unavailability of CT scans and of consultants, in spite of being paid an allowance, the lack of CT reports to Accident & Emergency going back since March and the absence of X-rays in the Department of Orthopedics were cited in the media. If this information is accurate, it represents a serious leak that not only spoke to the extent to which patient care has been compromised, according to BAMP’s minutes, but it also weakened the doctors’ case before the jury of public opinion. Both sides in the impasse have made industrial relations errors. The image of both parties has been damaged and tarnished. Thirty years ago I would have called for legislation to prohibit industrial action by doctors, members of the Police Force and fire officers. In 2010, we have come a long way. There is now the Congress of Trade Unions and Staff Associations of which BAMP should be a member. Training in industrial relations should be mandatory for members of boards of all statutory corporations and indeed for all those persons who politicians put in place to carry out their bidding. There are too many industrial relations giants and experts in Barbados for our health system to be brought to its knees in the way that it was recently. I am willing to concede that the cause might have been a good one but I am not so sure that it was necessary to compromise the health of our nation the way that we did. No wonder then that many described BAMP and its members as “callous and uncaring”. I know otherwise.  Matthew D. Farley is a secondary school principal, chairman of the National Forum On Education, and a social commentator.