By James Harding Giahyue
MONROVIA (Reuters) - Thousands of Liberian healthcare workers are set to begin an indefinite strike at midnight on Monday which could undermine the country's effort to stop the spread of the deadly Ebola virus and leave several hundred patients without care.
Health workers in the West African nation threatened to abandon hundreds of patients in Ebola treatment units, clinics and hospitals if demands for better incentives, working conditions and protective equipment were not met.
A meeting to resolve their grievances on Oct. 10 ended in a deadlock with the government refusing the meet their demands, said George Williams, secretary general of the National Health Workers Association of Liberia.
"The government of Liberia has not changed their posture. They do not want to engage us so that we can talk," Williams said. "Time is running out, by 1200 midnight on Monday morning, we will be starting the go-slow action."
Liberia's deputy health minister Matthew Flomo said the government was not aware of health workers planning to strike.
"What I do know is that the government has reached an agreement with health workers for their payment, which will be as of September, beginning Monday,” Flomo said.
But Williams denied the workers had reached any agreement with the government. He accused the administration of trying to divide the workers.
He, however, acknowledged that the strike would undermine the gains being made in the fight against Ebola in Liberia, but said they were confident the public would understand the reason behind their action.
"The problem is the government. The public should get angry with the government, not with us," Williams said
"The public is aware that health workers are dying because they are not protected. Nobody is supposed to die while protecting lives, we have been calling on the government to give us protective gear but they are not doing so," he said.
Liberia has the highest number of infections and deaths of the worst outbreak of the viral hemorrhagic fever that has killed 2,316 people in the poor West African nation.
Healthcare systems in Liberia as well as in Sierra Leone and Guinea where the outbreak was first recorded in March, have been overwhelmed by the epidemic. The disease has also spread to Senegal, Nigeria, Spain and the United States.
Concern that Ebola could spread globally has prompted international organizations and the international community to step up support for the affected countries with medical personnel, material and pledges of about $1 billion to tackle the epidemic.
But healthcare workers in Liberia complain they are still working without basic protective clothing and are not receiving adequate compensation while many of them have contracted and died from the disease.
Over 4,000 people have died from Ebola including 233 health care workers, among them 95 from Liberia and the same number from Sierra Leone, according to the World Health Organization.
(Reporting by James Harding Giahyue; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Stephen Powell)