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Public health workers protesting in Barcelona, Spain
Public health workers protesting in Barcelona, Spain
Bertrand Hauger

Skeptical. Overwhelmed. Disappointed. Exhausted. Helpless. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, healthcare workers have felt it all. But in recent weeks, doctors and nurses around the world have added one adjective to their list of feelings: angry.


In Europe, the mood has indeed shifted from the images of people applauding their medical heroes every night, from the balconies of Paris, London or Madrid. Even before some began turning the regular clapping sessions into purekitsch, health workers on the frontline were wondering if it all rang a bit hollow.


In France for instance, a country once famous for its second-to-none public health system, that initial grumpiness has quickly turned into bonafide ire, with demands for better pay for health staff and reform of the country's hospitals escalating into tense confrontations with authorities. French President Emmanuel Macron — whose father was a neurology professor and mother, a physician — experienced it first-hand, as he got into a fiery exchange with self-confessed "desperate" nurses at Paris' Pitié-Salpêtrière. Macron conceded a rare mea culpa, admitting his government had "made a mistake in the strategy" of reforming the national hospital system, asLe Monde reported. Still, his renewed promises for in-depth reform have been met with skepticism by frontline health professionals. Partly to blame, perhaps, is the announcement in March that staff battling the pandemic would receive a bonus of up to 1,500 euros, which some saw as a band-aid measure when massive investment in the health system is required. "That's nice, we'll take it," as one of the Pitié-Salpêtrière nurses told Monsieur le président. "But what we need is salary revaluation."


Similar scenes of frustration took place next door, in Belgium — the country with the highest COVID-19 mortality rate — when the staff of Brussels' Saint-Pierre Hospital turned their backs on Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès during an official visit. Most of the silent outrage over the Belgian government's handling of the pandemic was directed at a controversial decree, in early May, that allowed unqualified staff to undertake nursing duties. Here too, new promises were made, with Wilmes saying she did not want to see a post-coronavirus world where the health sector was "reduced to what it was before," Belgian broadcaster RTBF reports.


Other scenes of rising anger were registered in Mexico, where hundreds of health workers deplored the country's lack of adequate protective material; in India, where critics note that Mumbai shortages of hospital beds weighed on medical staff after years of chronic underinvestment in healthcare; and in Egypt, where deaths among healthcare professionals is the most brutal sign of what one called a "complete collapse" of the medical system.


Back on European balconies, some have deplored how the clapping for medical workers grows dimmer every evening. So many doctors and nurses had stopped listening long ago.

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