After two months of strikes, the medical students of various Moroccan universities have pushed the Ministry of Health to reverse its decision to impose mandatory medical service on medical-school graduates.
“Finally, we will be back to our classes after achieving our demands. For us, this is a great victory,” said Noureddine Al-Haqqoni, a student at the medical school in Fez.
In September, the Moroccan Ministry of Health announced a proposal requiring all health professionals, including newly graduated physicians, pharmacists, dentists, and nurses to work for two years in isolated, rural areas. The ministry hoped to reduce the disparity in health services between rural and urban districts, according to media statements by Houssine El Ouardi, the Moroccan health minister. But that decision sparked a wave of massive protests among students, professors, and working doctors.
“The problem is not to serve in remote areas, but the compulsory way of imposing such decisions,” said Ahmed Zeroual, a resident doctor at the University Hospital in Marrakesh, and the national coordinator of resident doctors and interns. He emphasized that the Moroccan doctors support any effort that seeks to improve the fragile healthcare in Morocco but also want to protect their own rights. In response to the law, the students of five colleges of medicine and dentistry boycotted their studies, and dropped out of the theoretical lectures and practical lessons in a number of university hospitals. They also went out in demonstrations calling for improving the quality of education, and sought to raise their pay for training in university hospitals, which has not exceeded 110 Moroccan dirhams ($12) per month.
“The guardianship policy the Ministry of Health wants to apply will not benefit the health sector and brushes off the students’ aspirations,” said Othman, 22, a fifth-grade student at the Marrakesh medical school.
According to the draft law, the “compulsory health service” wouldn’t be counted in the government service of the new graduates, their pension, or their retirement age and the contract would be for two years only, and not a permanent one.
Morocco suffers from a severe shortage in health professionals. The country is short of 6,000 doctors and 9,000 nurses according to government statistics. The World Health Organization says the number of medical staff that provides direct services to the patients has hit a critical threshold of less than 2.5 doctors per 1,000 citizens. The seven colleges of medicine, pharmacy, and dentistry in the kingdom also witness a severe shortage in the number of qualified professors, according to Ministry of Higher Education statistics.
Still, critics believe that the draft law did not aim to improve medical services provided in the Kingdom, but to reduce the number of government employees, since the doctors working in remote areas would only be under temporary contracts.
“The law is part of the government’s orientation to reduce employment in the public sector, at the same time as the doors become wide open for the private sector to invest in the Moroccans’ health,” said Abdul Kabir Sahnoun, secretary general of the National Union of Students in Morocco. As the government reduces the number of the doctors it hires, he implied, the hope is that private hospitals and clinics will hire more doctors.
Ahmed Balhous, a professor at the Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy in Casablanca, who was a mediator in the dialogue between the students and the Ministry of Health, also believes that the attempt at imposing mandatory service in rural areas was unfair.
“We objected to the ministry’s effort because it was limited to the graduates of public medical colleges and excluded the graduates of private medical colleges,” he said.
Now that students have managed to cancel the compulsory service, they have returned back to their classes. The suspension of the strike and the return to study does not include the resident doctors and interns working in university hospitals. They are still out on strike because they say their demands, including a wage increase and improved training conditions, have not been met.