Emergency-room strikes are spreading. The movement started in Paris three months ago and now involves around 100 hospitals in France.
The situation in hospitals is a disaster because there is an appalling lack of staff and resources but also because profitability is the primary concern, as it is throughout society.
Every worker knows what permanent understaffing is like on assembly lines, in production workshops, in offices, in superstores… And it’s absurd because there are millions of unemployed people. But in a hospital, being understaffed is criminal. It symbolizes the decay of a society that has brought competitiveness and profit-seeking into the field of caring for the sick and the elderly.
For several decades now, governments have destroyed the public health service by imposing financial criteria. They’ve opened up hospitals to private interests who have grabbed everything that can make them a profit. The state has allowed the rest to waste away. Public hospitals have contracted debts which have now reached 30 billion euros and is one of the major reasons for the pressure on them to make a profit.
On top of all this, emergency rooms have become the asylums of the modern world, collapsing under the ever-increasing poverty of society.
They now deal with two or three times the number of people they were built for. Two patients may be put in the same cubicle with just a screen between them or on trolleys that fill the corridors and where they have to wait 5 hours or more to be seen.
Last December, a 55-year-old woman was brought to the emergency room of a Paris hospital by the emergency services. She was found dead early the next morning. The emergency staff hadn’t registered her because she had lost consciousness and couldn’t answer when her name was called. Because they were seriously overworked, staff hadn’t had time to go around to all the patients present and thought that she had left the emergency room.
Governments have claimed that privatizing public services would make things better because it would bring prices down. But industrialists and bankers have made all the profit they can from the public health, rail, electricity and postal services and left them to rot.
After three months of protests that keep spreading, France’s health minister, Agnès Buzyn, a typically arrogant politician, remains unmoved. She has proposed a package of 15 million euros to increase staff but only over the summer month. Those on strike, the ones who have to face drama night and day in emergency rooms, estimate that at least 10,000 people should be hired.
The strikers are also demanding a wage increase of 300 euros for all. Wages in hospitals, just like wages in private companies, haven’t increased as much as the cost of living. Newly-recruited healthcare helpers are paid just above the minimum wage. A Parisian nurse, active in the protests, told the media that, after 10 years as a nurse, her gross monthly wage, not counting bonuses, is 1,589 euros.
Buzyn has granted a 100-euro monthly bonus which she justified by saying that staff in emergency rooms have to deal with “aggressive citizens” and “rudeness”. She’s obviously looking for an excuse to limit this bonus to emergency-room staff, even if the wages are just as low in other hospital departments. And she’s moralizing to sick people!
For politicians like Buzyn, the catastrophic situation is due to sick people behaving badly or coming for treatment too often, or, as France’s Prime Minister Edouard Philippe implied, it’s the fault of hospital staff who don’t have “a sense of responsibility”.
Nursing aides and nurses most certainly do have a sense of responsibility: they keep on going despite the chaos that comes from the profit-chasing that irresponsible governments have orchestrated. They’ve had enough and their fight is our fight.