WARSAW, Poland -- When a priest arrives at a hospital in Chorzow to perform the last rites, nurse Mariusz Strug can see the fear in dying patients' eyes. “After the sacrament, they knew what was happening,” he said.
But there have been no psychologists available to offer any consolation to the patients. Strug and another nurse would try to offer some kind words, but they were strained to the limit caring for 60 patients in their COVID-19 ward.
“People come to us and they want us nurses to perform a miracle," said Strug.
After a year and a half of the pandemic, and with Poland on the cusp of a fourth surge of COVID-19 infections, nurses, doctors, ambulance drivers and other health care workers have come to urge Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and other authorities to make deep reforms to the health care system, arguing that it is in danger of collapse.
“The pandemic showed us how bad the health care system is,” said Gilbert Kolbe, a nurse and spokesman for the protest movement. “This is the last chance to do something before it will be too late. We won’t be able to avert a crisis coming in five, ten years.”
While health care workers across the 27-nation European Union have been tested by the pandemic, Poland faced that test with fewer doctors and nurses than most. According to OECD statistics, Poland has the lowest number of working doctors in proportion to its population — just 2.4 to 1,000 inhabitants compared with 4.5 in Germany. Poland also has only 5 nurses to 1,000 inhabitants, below the EU average of 8 and far below richer countries like Germany, which has 14.
Poland’s health care sector has been strapped for resources for decades, a situation not rectified by a series of governments on the left, the center or now the right.
The problems have been exacerbated by the thousands of doctors, nurses and others who left Poland for higher paid work in Western Europe after the country joined the EU in 2004.
Of the medical professionals who have stayed in Poland, many have also left the public sector for better-paying jobs in the private sector, leaving fewer to care for the poorest people, said Kolbe, a 25-year-old who left a public hospital to work for a private medical company but hopes to return to the public system one day.
Kolbe said 5,500 people complete their nursing studies on average each year in Poland, but only about 2,500 go to work in the public system.
Some of those protesting say they are simply exhausted. With wages low, some work more than one medical job to support themselves.
Alicja Krakowiecka, a 56-year-old nurse from the southern city of Czestochowa, said her hospital is so short-staffed that during the height of the pandemic she would sometimes begin her day at 6 a.m. only to be asked to stay on because the night nurse was sick. She was then left alone with 30 patients for a 24-hour shift. Instead of getting two days off she would be asked to return the next evening.
“Do you refuse?” she asked, explaining that she agreed to the exhausting shifts out of a sense of obligation.
The protest began Sept. 11, when tens of thousands from across Poland marched through Warsaw. Some stayed on in tents and held daily press conferences and lectures.
Last weekend the protesters were deeply shaken when a 94-year-old man who come been stopping by and giving them candies killed himself a few feet away. A shot rang out during a news conference and the medics ran to the man, but couldn't help him.
Since then they have protested silently, forgoing news conferences.
Amid the pressure of the protests, and with talks between health care unions and the government going on for weeks, Morawiecki announced Tuesday that an additional 1 billion zlotys ($254 million) would be allocated this year to salaries and education in the health care sector.
In addition, Health Minister Adam Niedzielski said Wednesday that he had agreed to pay paramedics more.
Still, the group organizing the protests said the rest of the health care community was not satisfied, meaning more talks between the government and the protesters are planned.
Kamila Maslowska, a medical intern, stopped by the protest tents with some friends Tuesday to show her solidarity.
“I know two additional languages fluently, apart from Polish, so I think I could find a job abroad," she said "(But) I would not like to leave. I would like something to change for the better.”