Trade unions in the health sector in the region [Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Dominican Republic and Venezuela], affirmed during a virtual meeting that there is not enough personal protective equipment or medical supplies to deal with the Covid-19 epidemic. They denounced governments that are putting profits before people.
Affiliates of Public Services International (PSI) in the health sector in Latin America described the extent of the lack of basic security for health workers in the fight against COVID-19 during a virtual meeting held on Tuesday, March 24. PSI General Secretary Rosa Pavanelli participated in the meeting. She outlined the actions taken by PSI and its affiliates in the context of the health, economic and social crisis, gave an account of the outbreak of the coronavirus in Europe, and asked organizations to participate in an internal survey on trade union responses to COVID-19 so that information could be gathered on working conditions in the health sector in different countries and on the response measures taken by governments.
According to all of the reports from representatives from participating countries in the region, there is a lack of medical supplies and personal protective equipment for doctors, nurses, technicians and administrative staff. Some workers that denounce this situation are being persecuted. In addition, they shared cases of discrimination in the distribution of the existing equipment, with doctors being prioritized to the detriment of other professionals.
Union leaders who participated in the meeting also condemned the manner in which many Latin American governments are clearly prioritizing profits over people, that is, they are slow to determine strong measures of physical distancing to preserve the interests of the large economic and financial sectors. The meeting was attended by leaders from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela.
PSI Regional Secretary for Interamerica, Jocelio Drummond said that PSI would not accept the persecution of leaders or organizations that denounce the precarious working conditions of health workers or the "professional discrimination" in the distribution of personal protective equipment that is occurring. With respect to the lack of protective equipment and medical supplies, Drummond suggested that trade unions should press governments to force private industry to convert to production of necessary equipment, following the example of some European countries.
Jocelio Drummond also highlighted the struggle of trade unions in pressuring some governments to decree national quarantines and to adopt measures to mitigate the economic and social crisis that comes as a result of the spread of COVID-19. Participants also discussed the need for a moratorium on foreign debt payments and the need to fight against the (predictable) increases in violence against women in homes during confinement measures.
Situation in Europe and PSI actions
PSI General Secretary Rosa Pavanelli reported that, "no one expected a situation like the one we are experiencing in Europe today," and said she expected a very severe economic crisis that would last at least two or three years.
Pavanelli called attention to the "very critical" situation of health professionals: "In Italy and Spain, where we have the most serious crisis, 10% of confirmed cases are health workers, nurses and doctors. More than 24 doctors in Italy have died; in France at least two doctors have died of coronavirus. The working conditions are very hard, not only because of the number of patients, the intensity of the work and the complexity of treating patients with Covid, but also because the basic equipment is missing: masks, gloves, personal protective equipment, as well as respirators and ventilators".
In order to deal with this shortage, almost all Western European governments have forced private companies to convert their production to health equipment. "The lack of these products is general, and is essentially due to the fact that almost none of the European countries have maintained production at the national level in recent years," explained Rosa Pavanelli, who also commented on the measures taken by the continent's governments to force private hospitals to treat patients with Covid-19. Particularly those that have requisitioned private hospitals to deal with the pandemic.
The General Secretary also explained the actions that PSI is taking in the face of the coronavirus crisis around the world in defense of front-line workers in health, cleaning, waste collection and others who are in direct contact with the public. Demands include income subsidies and guaranteed protections for those who must be quarantined or confined.
For Rosa Pavanelli, this crisis exposes the weakness of the neoliberal system based on market solutions and the current global division of labour. “The position we have as PSI is that we must press for profound changes in the systems of global production and distribution and for a more just society”.
She also warned about the measures that have been imposed on the cities of the countries concerned. “They are very undemocratic measures, for a reason that everyone understands, but once they have been tried, they can be imposed on the population for other reasons. If we don't understand that, and the need for transparency, democratic participation and a profound change in the rules that have governed the world until now, the future will be a disaster.”
Union leaders who participated in the meeting shared the following reports:
"We are demanding that a national quarantine be decreed as a matter of urgency, yet the government continues to put the interests of the economy above health. Even the mayors have stepped forward, closing schools and businesses. We feel abandoned because the health authorities have decided to defend companies and production at the expense of the exponential growth of the contagion curve" - Carolina Espinoza, CONFUSAM/ PSI World Women's Committee
"The national government has not considered what we, the public sector health unions have put forward. We are very short of protective equipment. The round table on Covid-19 was created without the participation of unions representing health workers. Only the Medical Association was invited, which is not the voice of workers. The head of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) in Chile has advised the government that declaring a national quarantine is not yet a necessary measure, since in a country with a larger population and fewer cases, like Argentina, there is already a quarantine in effect. We are calling on PSI to look at ways to intervene with this PAHO official" - Gabriela Flores, CONFUSAM
"When we have called for better public health services, this is what we were talking about. When they are dismantled or privatized, in times of pandemic the difficulties we are experiencing appear. In Chile, health personnel working in public hospitals do not have basic protective equipment or safety measures. There is a lack of masks in the hospital network from Arica to Punta Arenas" - Aldo Santibañez, FENPRUSS
"I'd like to know how health professionals can mobilize if they're quarantined or in hospitals, working all the time to fight the coronavirus? How do you mobilize the working class like this?" - Shirley Morales, FNE
"President Jair Bolsonaro has taken measures that guarantee profits, preserve the interests of employers and harm workers. The national trade union centrals are demanding a minimum wage for all workers in the informal sector, and that the formal workers have their wages maintained by employers. The complaints of workers in various sectors are that there is no personal protective equipment. We are launching a campaign, inspired by PSI's global campaign, which includes a survey to share working conditions between organizations" - Denise Motta Dau, PSI Brazil
"The Brazilian Hospital Services Company refuses to test its staff for COVID-19 and to report positive or suspected cases. In the states of Sergipe and Piauí, professionals suspected of being infected are being directed to go home instead of being admitted to hospital. In addition, there is a lack of staff training to deal with this moment" - Edvaldo Pitanga, CONDSEF
"The General Confederation of Labour (CGT) is in permanent contact with the Ministry of Labour. The government has determined a salary increase of about $400 for health workers and is taking measures related to the social economy. A subsidy has been provided for the purchase of health equipment and supplies for the entire country. We have received in Covid-19 diagnostic testing assistance from China" - Santiago Piccone, UPCN
"We see timely measures and political definitions to counteract the economic implications of the virus. But health workers are without the necessary supplies and protective equipment. The reality is that in many provinces neither these elements nor the response protocol have arrived. Front-line staff are not trained. We are requesting the centralization of all protective equipment so that there is no disparity between the provinces. We are asking the ministries to intervene to train all the health workers" - María Fernanda Boriotti, FESPROSA
"We face a diverse situation because of the type of approach of the different levels of government. In Jalisco, measures have been taken in advance. On the part of the federal government, we don’t consider their participation to be serious. We would like, at this juncture, to consider a new budget allocation to health" - Juan José Hernández, FESIJAL
"The hospitals are already receiving patients, we only have 7 thousand beds in intensive care, 10% of which are equipped for isolation. The government has taken economic measures to protect the financial sector, it has appropriated resources from the territories in an arbitrary manner for this purpose, under the excuse that loans will be made to companies to protect jobs. Hospitals have not received resources. We are working without protective equipment" - Gerardo Herrera
"We're fighting to receive more supplies. Our nursing teams and doctors have been contaminated. They have had to be quarantined. We don't want applause, we want recognition. No one has ever been interested in the biosecurity of health workers before. If the health worker is missing, if he or she is not protected, the health of the world stops, the world stops" - Rodrigo López García, ANPE
"Many comrades are being threatened for denouncing that they do not have protective equipment, this happens in the area of customs, municipal workers and waste collection. The declaration of sanitary emergency was made after the economic measures that the government had taken. Here, priority is given to the payment of foreign debt and no resources are allocated to health" - Iván Bastidas, CONASEP/ASPAE
"We have protective equipment, but it’s rationed. The government has introduced a package of measures to tackle this situation, including a wage increase for health workers over the past few months. Three months of non-payment of electricity and water services are also foreseen. The government aims to work hard, but when the outbreak comes, I don't think we will have the hospital capacity to respond. However, the strategy is to qualify the hospitals as respiratory, on the one hand, and multipurpose, on the other. Economic food support has been approved for 1.5 million families" - Mirna Gallardo, APE
"Workers supported the government's measures from the beginning. We propose the creation of a national coordination of health workers, universities, unions and trade unions to coordinate actions" - Raúl Barreto Negrete, SITRAMIS
“We have no protective equipment. We are demanding minimum equipment and job stability from the president for the rest of the year by means of public communications and open letters. Budgetary be changes must be made as we will have a lot of casualties in the health sector" - Orciny Lemus, SNTSG
"There is a lack of medicines and medical supplies, since Venezuela, before this pandemic crisis, had its health system already quite decimated; there is a total crisis in the health system. The State contradicts itself and hides information from the population" - Yacquery Gutiérrez
"Our difficulties are the same as in other countries. Lack of personal protective equipment and the struggle to force authorities to find this equipment and prevent a ‘doctors only’ discrimination in the distribution of equipment. If there are not enough people to care for suspected and confirmed cases, we will not refuse to work. We are refusing to allow private laboratories to carry out Covid-19 tests, which contributes to speculation" - Julio César García, SINATRAE
"A government decree allows companies to get rid of workers and workers not to work, but without payment. Workers who are 55 or older are using their vacation or other paid time off. We are concerned that cases are not adding, but that they are multiplying. The problems are the same, we lack masks or other mouth covers" - Alejandro Haynes, FENASEP
"There is a lack of equipment, despite the fact that nine tons of such equipment has recently entered the country. We are demanding that there be a bonus from Social Security for health workers. The unions will participate in the national committee on Covid-19" - Wilfredo Ponce, FED-CUT-ESSALUD
"Three years ago the government dismantled the public health system, so we are not prepared to deal with a pandemic like this, which has taken lives in countries with stronger health systems. We have made every effort to be proactive. We have submitted a proposal called the "Socio-Economic Mitigation Plan" to the President, via the General Workers' Center, which aims, first of all, to protect workers. One of its fundamental points is that jobs must be safeguarded under all circumstances. We are facing serious difficulties with the provision of supplies and materials. With everything closed, including transport, health workers are being affected. They are having difficulty getting to work." - Miguel Ángel Mejía, SITRAMEDHYS