SOS! European hospitals are struggling

Austerity is infecting European hospitals, and their staff members are demanding more than just applause.

More than a year ago, on March 18, 2019, French hospital emergency staff took to the streets, as unions called for a day of mobilization to save state hospitals.

Nurses, doctors and cleaning staff all rang the alarm bell with the observation that, due to a lack of financial resources and staff, public hospitals were collapsing and patients were, as a consequence, suffering or even dying.

The number of patients cared for in French hospital emergency departments increased from 10 million to 21 million between 1996 and 2016, with almost frozen staffing levels and a drastic reduction in resources. Over the last ten years, austerity measures have enabled the French state to “save €12 billion.”

These so-called ‘savings’ have fatal consequences, both literally and figuratively. This is the case in state hospitals.

During demonstrations that took place a year ago, medical staff were already demanding the creation of a minimum of 10,000 nursing and care assistant positions in order to cope with an ever-increasing number of patients in an ageing country with an ever-increasing number of pathologies due to stressful working conditions. All this within an economy with a constant demand to do more with less.

In 2007, the information that the State owed public hospital staff 23 million hours of unpaid and unrecovered overtime, caused a nationwide scandal. Even after clear signs of public discontent, the situation of the workers didn’t fundamentally change afterwards.

Hospital staff are unable to recuperate overtime or even take leave due to a lack of staff. Working days are de facto extended beyond legal norms. In addition to this, there is very low pay as well as unequal pay levels between staff with French and foreign qualifications. The number of beds is constantly decreasing — forcing care workers, especially emergency doctors, to juggle to find beds in other departments or even other hospitals.

The new neoliberal management of hospitals has transformed state hospitals into business entities with profit-driven motives and “just-in-time” logistics: no investment, and a recurrent lack of common equipment and medicine

This forces caregivers to constantly invent last-minute solutions that increases their already unbearable stress levels. As a result, a large number of nurses leave the profession after 3 years of practice and 25% of hospital doctor positions are not filled.

During the year preceding the COVID-19 crisis, hospital nurses and doctors not only organised a large number of demonstrations, they also carried out different types of actions when strikes were impossible such as lighting hospital rooms at night performing the SOS sign, giving interviews to all media afterwards. Nothing succeeded in getting the French government to take action. Thousands of heads of department first threatened to resign from their administrative delegation and then actually resigned.

The only reaction from the French Government? Contempt: French people will remember the condescending attitude of the Minister of Health visiting the hospital in Rouen in 2018. Instead of taking into consideration the demands of the caretakers concerning the impact of health on its citizens as well as those of the caretakers, the French government sent police forces to fire tear gas, harming the demonstrators.

Then came the pandemic. 

The already overwhelmed public hospitals were finally and unfortunately able to demonstrate what they had been shouting for several years: a lack of medical gowns, no masks and few beds. French patients had to be sent to Luxembourg, Germany or Switzerland due to the insufficient number of UCI beds and ventilators.

Caregivers had the heavy task of sorting out the patients they were going to be able to treat. On top of that, emergency rooms could not receive the elderly  from retirement homes. This has been a disaster for healthcare workers who had been warning for so long about the future of hospitals. It has been a tragedy for the patients and their families, and a tragedy for French medical staff who will have to recover psychologically from a drama that could have been partly avoided, as in Germany, Denmark and other countries where the hospitals have been receiving more attention in recent years.

To date, France has 142,291 contaminated patients and 28,108 deaths, which puts it in fifth place in terms of deaths per inhabitant. Every evening at 8pm French citizens applaud for care personnel from their balconies or windows. The hospital staff, exhausted and themselves victims of the virus, may have had the illusion of finally being heard.

Unfortunately, as soon as the confinement was lifted, Emmanuel Macron’s government responded to the requests for an increase in wages, manpower and resources by only offering a medal and a bonus of up to €1500 for some of the COVID-19 fighters: the last straw that broke the camel’s back.

Healthcare workers have held protests in front of Paris hospitals on consecutive tuesdays in May. A dozen worker’s unions are now calling on all citizens to come out in support of healthcare workers at a demonstration on the 16th of June.

Belgium and the rest of Europe. 

As for our neighbors in Belgium, the state had to urgently find €1 billion to be paid to hospitals so that they could pay the salaries of their healthcare staff until June. In the midst of the crisis, the government showed its incompetency by failing to deliver 3 million much-needed FFP2 masks to hospitals because they didn’t meet the quality standards.

These instances could have been prevented if the millions destroyed ahead of the outbreak due to its expiration date had been replaced. The cabinet defended themselves by arguing that the choice to not replace the stocks was because of the ‘complex’ situation and that they were waiting for a ’strategic plan’ to not be ‘wasteful with taxpayers money’. Even if this is the case, it only shows a lack of swift decision making and the devastating effects of austerity.

New royal decrees now require the automatic requisition of employees. Even unqualified ones, in case of a new emergency, while a major restructuring plan for Belgian hospitals was announced at the end of 2019 with the potential loss of 180,000 jobs: inacceptable.

The Belgian healthcare unions have filed strike notices.

During the visit of Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès,  healthcare staff turned their backs on the Prime Minister in Brussels on Saturday the May 16 for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 crisis. In a response to this, Federal Minister Marie-Christine Marghem compared healthcare workers taking part in the protest to “children who did not get what they want.” This clearly shows the disconnect between politicians and workers in the frontline of the crisis.

Elsewhere in Europe, the situation is not much brighter: three days ago the British Home Secretary Priti Patel has sparked anger when announcing that foreign healthcare workers will have to continue to pay a huge fee to be allowed to work for the NHS just when the lack of nurses and doctors led to a disaster in the fight against COVID-19.

The ideological bias of neoliberal governments in Europe has cost more lives than ever. 

This  crisis has revealed what the healthcare workers had unsuccessfully tried to warn us about for years. This time, however, the population is ready to fight alongside them, having experienced on a large scale the stranding of our healthcare system and, more generally, of public services and its consequences on their families. Citizens are aware that the time has come to reinvest in public services and will hopefully soon express it on the streets as well as at the polling stations.

As a movement, let’s support all layers of society by advocating for DiEM25’s proposal for recovery: the 3-Point Plan!

This article was authored by Emma Justum and David Vlieger. The featured photograph depicts an action done by hospital staff in France to call attention to their lack of resources. 

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