Among the unsung heroes of the worldwide battle against the COVID-19 pandemic are nurses. There are an estimated 40,000 nurses in Israel, and they went on strike on Monday over coronavirus conditions and staff shortages, after talks with the Finance and Health ministries broke down.
The National Association of Nurses announced last Wednesday that it planned to launch a general strike if the government did not allocate more staff to hospitals, health fund clinics and other medical facilities.
In an open letter to directors of the health funds and the Health Ministry, the association’s chairwoman, Ilana Cohen, said that the strike was called out of national responsibility and to prevent the collapse of the nursing system.
“It seems that the Finance Ministry has failed to stand up to the test and is not doing enough to make human lives and health its top priority, and therefore we unfortunately are left with no other choice but to take organizational action, before we are forced to deal with the immoral and inhuman choices of who deserves proper treatment and who does not,” she said. “We nurses have decided to take action and initiate the legal means at our disposal to prevent the harm and loss of life and to stop the erosion of our fortitude against the coronavirus and prevent the anticipated doomsday scenario for the public health system.”
Union heads and Finance Ministry director-general Keren Terner Eyal failed to reach an agreement during meetings on Sunday that went on into the night. The nurses association’s representatives also met last week with Health Ministry director-general Prof. Hezi Levi, but to no avail.
Cohen squarely blamed the Finance Ministry for the breakdown in negotiations, saying Treasury officials had refused to budget for more nurses in hospitals and had offered to only temporarily boost nursing staff at medical facilities.
“They also suggested that next year any nurse who retires will be replaced right away,” she said. “It’s like using a Band-Aid, and it’s a shame. It shows that they have not internalized anything.”
Cohen complained that hospitals had purchased ventilators without providing additional training to nurses, opened coronavirus wards without adding personnel and had not increased their staff to meet the new circumstances.
The Health Ministry said 813 nurses had entered quarantine since last Sunday – compared to 124 nurses for the whole of June – and confirmed, even as hospitals opened more coronavirus wards, that no nursing staff had been added.
The nurses should be commended for deciding, out of a sense of national responsibility, not to strike at corona and oncology wards, or at COVID-19 testing labs, while enabling emergency surgery and other lifesaving work to continue unabated.
Sheba Medical Center associate director-general Prof. Arnon Afek told Ynet that there is a shortage of as many as 1,000 nurses in the country’s hospitals. “There is a great shortage in the number of nurses compared to the number of beds we operate within hospitals,” he said.
Although the coronavirus has exacerbated the situation of the nurses, their complaints are not new. Last July, nurses across Israel went on strike to protest their poor working conditions, heavy caseloads and low standards of care.
As anyone who has ever spent time in a hospital knows, nurses do most of the work, in wards, in clinics and more. Without nurses who are well rested, well paid and able to function, the health system will not manage. Israel’s nurses are overworked, and considering the challenges they are facing especially now, it is time for the government to put the money where it is needed.
While the average for developed countries is nine nurses for every 1,000 citizens, Israel has only five per 1,000. According to rankings made in 2011, Israel is one of the lowest nursing ratio countries in the developed world, after Greece, Mexico and Turkey.
It’s time to change this shameful situation. Nursing is all about treating patients and saving lives. We urge government ministries to return to the negotiating table and do everything they can to return the nurses to work. We should be treating them with the same kind of care that they give the rest of us.