Sri Lanka`s health indices are often on par with those of the developed world. This is an envious record for a Third World country. Sri Lanka`s superb performance in the health sphere can be attributed to a superior healthcare system run by the Government.
All Sri Lankan Governments have developed this free healthcare system which affords everyone an opportunity to seek medical treatment at no cost. Budget 2008 has also given priority to the development of the health sector.
It is mostly the poor and middle income earners who patronise State hospitals as wealthy individuals avail themselves of the services at private hospitals around the island.
Such a State-owned healthcare and hospital system can only function effectively as long as the employees work honestly.
There was a time when health workers were held in high esteem by the society as they worked with dedication towards the welfare of patients. However, the onset of politicisation and trade unionism has dealt a blow to the health sector.
We have seen countless strikes in the health sector during the last decade or so. Doctors, nurses, radiologists, technicians and minor staffers have engaged in strikes at one time or the other, hampering the smooth flow of work.
In most cases, the main demand was more pay. There are no prizes for guessing who is held `hostage` by these strikers - it is the innocent patients who have no other means to get medication.
The latest imbroglio in the health sector has been caused by staff in the lower grades over the fingerprint time attendance system. In our opinion, this should cause no concern to those who work honestly.
It is a matter of `fingerprinting` your in and out times and overtime too can be calculated accordingly. The unions` opposition to the tamper-proof fingerprinting system betrays their fears over being unable to manipulate attendance records manually.
In fact, it has been revealed that the State has lost billions of rupees due to overtime scams in the health sector. As our page one story revealed yesterday, one health worker has been not on duty for only two hours a day. According to these records, he has slept for only 24 hours the whole year.
This alone indicates the extent of malpractices in the health sector. Thus it is not surprising that many health workers are opposing the fingerprint system, which will put a full stop to such fraudulent acts.
What is even more dangerous is that the health unions have disregarded a court order which restrained them from launching a strike. Such disrespect for the Courts show the arrogance of health union leaders who apparently think they are above the law.
The Government once again had to deploy the Armed Forces for hospital duties. This helped maintain a near-normal level of service at most hospitals, but one must think of the wider picture.
These are trying times for the Security Forces. They are battling the LTTE, which is trying its level best to cause mayhem and carnage in the South, as exemplified by the Nugegoda blast which killed 20 civilians.
The Forces must be on alert 24 hours a day to prevent such attempts by the LTTE. Unfortunately, deploying Forces personnel at hospitals will shift their attention away from the task of ensuring national security.
This is one reason why veteran trade unionists including Western Province Governor Alavi Mowlana have appealed to all trade unions to act with more responsibility at a time when the enemy is looking to cripple our vital services.
They should not in any way allow the LTTE to find a loophole that will pave the way for their deadly attacks.
Health services in particular must be ready to meet any emergency in the prevailing situation.
What would have happened if the majority of health workers were on strike last Wednesday when the LTTE set off the Nugegoda bomb ? Many more would have perished due to lack of care and treatment.
Trade unions must stick to the time honoured tradition of discussions to resolve their problems instead of launching strikes at the drop of a hat. Strikes should be a last resort. The time has indeed come for a new trade union culture in Sri Lanka that honours these principles.