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Health workers on strike

French health workers face fear and burn-out as second Covid-19 'tsunami' hits

French health workers attend a protest in Paris as part of a nationwide day of actions to urge the government to increase staff as hospitals fill once again with COVID-19 patients, 15 October, 2020.
French health workers attend a protest in Paris as part of a nationwide day of actions to urge the government to increase staff as hospitals fill once again with COVID-19 patients, 15 October, 2020. REUTERS - BENOIT TESSIER
4 min

French health workers protested across the country on Thursday, demanding a pay rise and better working conditions. Union representatives say the government has underestimated the crisis in hospitals which has reported severe burn-out by many workers, many of whom are resigning. The prime minister Jean Castex on a visit to Lille on Friday, attempted to reassure them.

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Calling on the French public to "mobilise" and "respect measures in place" in order to help health workers face the Covid-19 crisis, Jean Castex visited a public hospital in Lille on Friday, promising "full government support."

He met with CGT union representatives, who came to express their "profound concern" over the ability to face the second wave of the virus.

The CGT union and its allies held a nationwide rally on Thursday – calling for a significant pay rise for health workers and an immediate recruitment of much-needed personnel.

The unions say that the second wave of the Covid-19 virus may well bring on "the complete collapse of the country’s health system and its related social structures."

Castex told health managers that "the government is ready to reinforce financing, make rules more flexible, so that no obstacle stands in the way of making these massive efforts as efficient as possible."

Water is rising

"We need the public’s help," said Arnaud Scherpereel, head of a cardiovascular unit which was struggling to cope with the influx of patients since the summer.

"The first wave was a tsunami. Now the water is rising. This week, it has reached our knees. But the essential is to not drown," he said.

More than 30, 000 new infections of the virus were reported on Thursday over a 24 hour period, a record according to Santé Publique France which saw a 53 percent increase in the week of 5 - 11 October, compared to the previous week.

"We have the impression that we have even less resources than we did a few months ago,” bemoans Renaud Chouquer, doctor for an intensive care unit at a rally in Annecy-Genevois told AFP.

The nationwide demonstrations coincided with a press conference held by French Prime Minister Jean Castex on Thursday outlining the details of the curfew in nine urban zones in France which will come into effect on Friday at midnight.

According to the government, the effects of the curfew will only begin to show signs in two to three weeks.

'Frightening'

The rise in the number of patients in hospital since the beginning of September has raised fears among health workers that the second wave will be even harder to manage than the first.

"It’s frightening. I have the impression to go back to March," Hocine Saal, head of emergency services at Montreuil hospital, in the east of Paris told AFP.

"The situation is different but worse. During the lockdown, the non-Covid patients dwindled. That’s not the case today. It’s very difficult to take care of Covid and non Covid patients at the same time."

Already, a number of hospitals and clinics have begun cancelling any non-urgent planned operations and asking their staff to cancel upcoming paid leave.

But this has some managers worried, as they know their staff to be on the edge of burn-out, some having not taken a break since March.

Hit rock bottom

"They have hit rock bottom, they’re exhausted, and furthermore, they are scared," says Saal.

Jean Castex said a compensation of 110-200 euros per day would be given to those staff who cancelled their holidays over the coming weeks.

Castex also referred to the financial incentives agreed upon at the Ségur de la Santé – a government-organised consultation in July, which was signed by the majority of hospital unions.

It included a raise of 183 euros net per month for all personnel (except doctors), with 90 euros of that as of 1 September and the rest in October instead of March as originally planned.

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