NAIROBI — For years, the Kenyan government has been mired in scandals of corruption and mismanagement. But that dysfunction is rarely as visible as it was Monday in the Kenyan capital when dozens of mentally ill patients escaped from Mathari Hospital, where nurses were on strike and refused to work.
More than 80 patients, wearing their hospital-issued uniforms, climbed over the walls of Kenya’s largest mental hospitals and ran on to one of the country’s busiest highways. The nurses who were supposed to be taking care of them had joined a massive strike for higher wages.
The patients, unsupervised, “wandered away because there was no one to guide them,” said Julius Ogato, the medical superintendent of the hospital. “If patients are not engaged, they will find something to do on their own.”
More than 50 patients are still missing. Their illnesses were not disclosed, and many in Nairobi worried Monday that the escapees could pose a threat.
Ogato, however, said, “They are more of a danger to themselves. For example, if one of them strays into a private compound, he or she could be mistaken for a burglar.”
Traffic on the Thika Highway was stalled Monday morning as patients ran between cars and across lanes. One video showed the patients straddling a wire fence and walking away as onlookers gawked.
The nurses did not return to work. It was unclear whether anyone was there to provide food or medicine to the patients.
The hospital is working with the deputy county commissioner and police to track down the missing patients.
Kenyan doctors make as little as $400 per month, and nurses make as little as $150 per month. Many of them say they are working in squalid conditions. On Monday, thousands of doctors and nurses across the country refused to go to work, instead marching in front of the country’s Finance Ministry to demand a 300 percent raise they were promised in 2013. They have accused government officials of siphoning off the money intended for Kenya’s public hospitals.
Doctors with six years of training earn less than rookie police officers, according to Ouma Olunga, secretary-general of the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union.
Health workers warned Kenyans to prepare for the longest strike in history if their demands are not met. On Monday, the protests were broken up when police fired tear gas into the crowd of doctors and nurses.
Delays in treatment and limited resources have had dire consequences for Kenyans, especially the poor who cannot afford the slew of private hospitals that have emerged. The average age at death here is 46 for men and 51 for women.