On 11 September, a large number of nurses, doctors and paramedics rallied in central Warsaw to demand higher wages and an improvement of their working conditions. As the fourth coronavirus wave gathers pace in Poland, protesters criticized the government for putting the safety of patients at risk by underfunding the healthcare system. But Poland’s health system resources were already inadequate before the pandemic, and low wages drove many medical workers to seek work abroad.

Protesters stressed they are working extremely long hours, putting their patients in danger and also driving themselves to early deaths. They held a minute of silence outside the presidential palace in memory of the 500 medics killed during the pandemic. ‘Come to the Wards: They'll be Closing Soon’ and ‘We Don't Live Long Because We Work Hard’, read some of the placards at the protest.

One of the main demands of the demonstrators is the increased expenditure on healthcare to 8% of the gross domestic product (GDP) instead of the 6% planned for 2022. In 2017, Poland spent 6.5 % of its GDP on health compared to an average of 9.8 % across the EU. Almost 70 % of this spending came from public sources, a lower share than the average for the EU (79 %). The rest is predominantly paid out of pocket by households, primarily for outpatient medicines.

 They also demand pay raises to average OECD levels relative to national wages and an increase in the number of employees in the healthcare system. This includes the creation of more administrative jobs to ease the bureaucratic burden on doctors and nurses. In Poland, the number of practising doctors in relation to the population was 2.4 per 1000 inhabitants in 2020, one of the lowest rates among OECD countries, and well below the EU average of 3.8.

 Health Minister Adam Niedzielski accused the protest organizers of ‘creating theatre’ on the streets in search of ‘social applause’. He said some measures can be implemented ‘in a few years’ time, not in a year or two’, but stress that the state cannot afford to meet all their demands. Announcements of pay raise for certain groups of medical workers were criticized by the protesters who said the health ministry was trying to sow seeds of division and break up the strike.

 Poland’s public healthcare workers have staged a number of protests over pay and working conditions in the last few years. Earlier this month, over half of Warsaw’s ambulance crews went on strike, leading the government to call in air rescue to fill the gaps in service. Across the country, many paramedics have quit their jobs in protest against low pay and long working hours. Actions that are referred to as ‘blackmail politics’ by the health ministry.

 But Poland is by no means an isolated case, the pandemic revealed the weaknesses of Public Health Care systems globally. The difference rather lies in the way governments reacted to this major crisis. In France, for instance, the government is taking the path to reduce bureaucracy and significantly raising wages. Medical workers will receive a raise of 180€ net per month, representing an annual envelope of 8.2 billion euros.

Photo credits NanoStockk

Subscribe to our newsletters → here