On June 7, healthcare workers in hospitals across France went on strike to protest a lack of resources, low pay and a wave of emergency room closures at public hospitals. With these workers exhausted and outraged by intolerable working conditions in this third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, staffing shortages are now reaching critical proportions and forcing major cuts in access to hospital care.
The strike is part of a growing struggle by healthcare workers internationally against the subordination of medical care to private profit and the devastating consequences of the deadly official handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. In recent weeks, tens of thousands of health workers have gone on strike in Scotland, Turkey, Madrid and the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Massive healthcare strikes in the US states of Minnesota, California and New Jersey are unfolding as healthcare workers protested an attempt to criminalize nurse RaDonda Vaught for medical malpractice in 2017.
In France, access to medical care is under threat as President Emmanuel Macron’s policies of austerity and massive COVID-19 infection are causing hospitals to collapse. Emergency departments are periodically closed, often at night, or access is limited in a number of hospitals. These include the University Hospitals of Amiens, Angers, Bordeaux, Caen, Clermont-Ferrand, Dijon, Grenoble, Lyon, Metz, Nice, Orléans, Reims, Rennes and Strasbourg. There are also critical staff shortages in maternity wards, which compromises proper pregnancy checks and safety during deliveries.
Doctors and nurses warn that French hospitals face collapse without a massive injection of resources and staff. Dr Frédéric Adnet of Avicenne Hospital said: “The emergency services are on the verge of collapse. It is a symptom and a result of a deep hospital crisis, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. For lack of hospital staff, one in five departments risks being closed this summer.
Dr Anwar Ben Hellal of Versailles Hospital predicted a “catastrophic” summer, where “people will arrive at the emergency room and find the doors closed”. … Already people are dying for lack of supervision, staff and beds.” He added that after years of consistently working 70 or 80 hour weeks due to staff shortages, staff were becoming completely burnt out and leaving the profession.
WSWS reporters spoke on Tuesday with striking nurses who were gathering outside the Ministry of Health in Paris to protest.
Amélie told the WSWS: “We have always been on strike for the same reasons since the last protests: we are not getting the resources we need for public hospitals. We don’t get the material or the human resources. That’s why we are here. … It’s very frustrating, we can’t take care of our patients properly.”
“At the start of COVID they were saying we were heroes, but now we’re very clearly let down,” Marine said. When Amélie noted that French nurses in public hospitals are paid €1,400 per month and up to €2,000 per month at the end of their career, Marine added that entry-level nurses are “paid like cashiers, but life is in our hands”.
WSWS reporters also spoke to Rachid, who spoke of the explosive anger building among health care workers over the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rachid recalled the essential role played by poorly paid nurses, food processing and retail workers during the first wave of the virus. Due to strikes and growing public concern, they forced Macron to enact the first lockdown. He said: “During the first wave of COVID-19, workers paid 1,000 or 2,000 euros were confronted with a virus that nobody knew about and they were dying in all the hospitals.
“Health workers took over in the first wave. … But then the bureaucracy took over and kept closing beds,” Rachid said, adding that “no politician took the measure of the hospital crisis.”
WSWS reporters noted the staggering and horrifying contrast between China and France. While China used a strict lockdown to stamp out the virus, in France Macron allowed the virus to return and refused to track, trace and isolate cases. The result is that the virus has come back in force in France and in the countries of Europe. While less than 6,000 people have died from COVID-19 in China, nearly 2 million have died from it in Europe, including nearly 150,000 in France.
Rachid replied: “The image I have left of China during the first wave is that they managed to build a hospital in 10 days. We were in the middle of a pandemic and we were cutting hospital beds. He added: ‘You probably remember, you saw other healthcare workers using bin bags to protect themselves, like we were a third world country. This is why many healthcare workers do not want to return to this work and why many will not return.
He explained that the government’s blatant disregard for public health and safety is undermining support for the few remaining public health measures it is taking. While N95 or FFP2 masks are the minimum standard of protection, he said: “In my department and for many of my colleagues, we only have surgical masks to enter COVID patient rooms. So we struggle to stay with a philosophy that we should wear masks, largely because of government inconsistency.
He criticized the Macron administration for firing healthcare workers who refused to be vaccinated but tested negative for COVID-19, while ordering vaccinated nurses who tested positive to return to work for treat vulnerable patients. He bitterly denounced the “flash mission” announced by Macron on May 31, setting up a committee to “assess” the needs of hospitals.
He said: “Look at the nursing courses, they are empty like deserts. And among the few students there, the dropout rate is 50%. When they finally get to an internship, the supervision they get is so bad they think, “There’s no way I can have a career like this. So, when Mr. President speaks of a “flash mission”, what a disaster. This is yet another unimportant thing.
The way forward is to mobilize and unify the growing international opposition among health workers and other industries against the capitalist system. The horrific conditions in hospitals in France and around the world are linked to decades of underfunding of health care by capitalist governments of all political stripes, now greatly exacerbated by the global COVID-19 pandemic.
It is impossible to reverse the accelerating collapse of health systems without science-based policy to stop the COVID-19 pandemic and eliminate the virus. After Macron and all European Union (EU) governments abandoned public health measures against COVID-19 contagion, a new wave of the virus is emerging. France registers more than 140,000 cases and 200 deaths from COVID-19 every week, in the total indifference of the Macron government.
In addition, Macron is investing hundreds of millions of euros in NATO arming Ukrainian units and far-right nationalist militias to wage war against nuclear power Russia and increasingly threaten the China.
The mobilization and international unification of health care workers depends on a break with national union bureaucracies, which divide health care workers along national lines and attempt to vent themselves in toothless protest strikes. Workers need their own independent rank-and-file committees, independent of the unions that negotiate state austerity policies with capitalist governments.
Building the International Alliance of Workers’ Rank-and-File Committees (IWARFC) empowers the working class to organize and mobilize its industrial strength to stop imperialist wars, eliminate COVID-19, and lead a struggle for a socialist society that requires the use of social wealth to meet urgent social needs such as health care.