Unionised healthcare professionals at public hospitals in Buenos Aires City walked off the job on Tuesday in protest at low pay and staffing levels, decrying a “lack of answers” from the authorities.
The demands of the demonstrators – who were dressed in their traditional white coats for the rally – include calls for an "urgent salary increase, with a floor of 200,000 pesos" for all workers and the "immediate incorporation" of new professionals.
Doctors, nurses and support staff gathered downtown to march from the Obelisk to the Plaza de Mayo, before marching on the headquarters of the City Health Ministry to demand a meeting with the head of the portfolio, Fernán Quirós.
A statement from the organisers of the protest decried the “lack of answers” from the authorities in the wake of runaway inflation and tough conditions for healthcare professionals.
"We have still not received an answer from the [City] Health Minister Fernán Quirós,” said Belén Díaz, a worker at the Santojanni Hospital in Liniers.
“We sent a request for an urgent meeting, with alternative proposals, but we have not received a response.”
She said that those rallying were seeking "290,000 pesos in gross salary, in order to have 250,000 pesos net."
Doctors, nurses and other health workers have taken to the streets several times in recent weeks to demand improved pay and working conditions, especially in light of the exhaustive workload doctors and nurses faced during the coronavirus pandemic.
The conflict has raised further challenges for state hospitals in the capital, some of which have seen their services reduced to emergency care and treatment only.
"I don't remember anything like this,” said Gustavo Frei, a doctor at the Hospital de Niños Ricardo Gutiérrez, the city's largest paediatric centre.
“It’s difficult, but it’s the right thing to do. People need well-trained doctors and for that you have to pay them well.”
Tuesday’s strike, organised by the Agrupación Hospitales de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires branch of the Asociación de Trabajadores del Estado (Association of State Workers, ATE) union, saw workers rally under the slogans: "They call us essential and treat us as disposable” and “health in emergency.”
Residents and attending nurses from the Asociación de Licenciados en Enfermería (Association of Licensed Nurses, ATE) also joined the action, as did members of the Comisión Provincial de Residentes (CPR).
The previous day ATE representatives had held a press conference at the Rivadavia Hospital confirming that a 24-hour strike would affect 34 healthcare institutions across Buenos Aires.
Vacancies and discontent
The situation at the capital’s 30 public hospitals has been aggravated by the impact of runaway inflation, which is projected to reach 100 percent this year.
Low salaries discourage basic medical specialisations.
"Many residencies have been left vacant due to lack of incentives, in paediatrics it has never happened that there are so many unfilled vacancies and that has to do with low salaries," warned Frei.
In Argentina, a doctor needs about five years of hospital residency experience to become a specialist. During that time they work eight hours a day as well as a weekly 24-hour emergency care shift for a salary of around 120,000 pesos a month (around US$700 at the official exchange rate).
In addition to the residents, there are also 'concurrent' doctors who carry out their specialisation with a smaller workload, but they do not receive pay or insurance for occupational hazards, something they are also demanding.
"We are demanding a starting salary of 200,000 pesos (US$1,200)," explained Julio Díaz, a resident doctor at the Fernández hospital, adding: "Residents and concurrent doctors are a fundamental pillar for hospital care – we support almost half of all healthcare."
Since they went on strike a fortnight ago, "all work has been overloaded on the permanent staff doctors – there are no shifts for patients, some services are also closing because there have been resignations due to low salaries," said Ricardo Knopoff, a doctor who has worked for 30 years at the Hospital Piñero.
According to Virginia Bustos, an endocrinologist at the Hospital Argerich, "the economic situation of the country has changed enormously – today, a doctor has to work at many places and we are very tired.”
Underlining the frustration throughout the health system, nurses and support staff joined Tuesday’s walk-out.
"I work seven-hour shifts a day, with a weekly 24-hour shift and I get a basic salary of 85,000 pesos (US$510) a month. Who can live on that?" complained Roxana Méndez, a nurse who has worked at the Hospital Ramos Mejía since she graduated from university 18 years ago.
"The result is moonlighting – we work in the hospital and in sanatoria, double shifts and [staying] on call to 'make' a decent salary, but that leads to exhaustion and the patient is harmed” as a result, complained her colleague, fellow-nurse Romina Albanil.
Doctors and nurses also feel devalued after working tirelessly throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.
"It was a very traumatic situation for us and now there is a kind of 'clean slate,' like a collective amnesia in the recognition that is not at all good," concluded Fernando Nieto González, a psychiatrist at the Hospital Borda.