Europe

French medics protest over hospital crisis, deepened by COVID-19

Health workers around France protested on Tuesday to demand more employment and better salaries in public hospitals.

Nine unions and collectives organised a day of protest, outside the Health Ministry in Paris and in dozens of other towns and cities, to call the government’s attention to growing concerns about staff shortages. 

Years of gradual cost cuts left France’s once-renowned public health care system understaffed and ill-prepared when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and are now forcing emergency rooms to cut services. 

President Emmanuel Macron has promised a rethink of the public hospital system and commissioned an urgent review by July 1. Protesters hope to pressure the government as France heads into two rounds of legislative elections starting on Sunday.

“We need an emergency plan for public hospitals today, with massive hiring … We also want a pay rise. We are the least paid in Europe,” said Nathalie Marchand, a personnel assistant at Paris’ Saint Louis hospital.

She was among several hundred health workers who demonstrated outside the Health Ministry.

Demonstrations were held elsewhere in France, including in Cherbourg, where Macron visited a hospital last week to announce his “flash mission” to work to bolster saturated emergency services.

“How could Emmanuel Macron, call an urgent review when there have been shortages for so long?” said Rachid Ouchem, a psychological assistant.

Ouchem is among those who would like to see the rehiring of around 15,000 health workers who lost their jobs for refusing to get vaccinated against COVID-19, saying it would be an immediate answer to the long process of eventually training new hospital staff.

Macron’s government offered slight salary boosts to some hospital workers last year and authorised new equipment, but medics say the problems are deeper. 

Morale was already low among many medics when the pandemic hit, and some have quit the profession. Others are still reeling from the challenges of treating successive waves of COVID-19 patients.

An emergency medics’ group, Samu-Urgences de France, calculated last month that more than 100 emergency facilities have either already limited services or plan to because of staff shortages.

“The public hospital is the common good,” said Ouchem, encouraging health professionals and others to mobilize. “Anybody could be at the hospital or in an ER tomorrow.”

He added, “For two years, hospitals only stand thanks to health workers.”

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