Polish Health Care Workers Fear Medical System Near Collapse Amid COVID, Staff Shortages

More than a year and a half into the pandemic in Poland, on the brink of its fourth COVID-19 surge, health care workers and emergency medical service personnel are pressing Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and other officials to reform the health care system they say is about to 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."

Health care workers in the European Union have been slammed during the pandemic, but Poland faced the same circumstances with fewer doctors and nurses. Statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development show Poland has the fewest number of working doctors in relation to the country's population.

Poland has 2.4 doctors per 1,000 residents compared with 4.5 in Germany, and only five nurses per 1,000 residents, below the EU average of eight and much less than Germany, which has 14.

Poland Health Care Strike
Health care workers staff a protest camp in Warsaw, Poland, on September. 21. Doctors, nurses and other health care workers have been camping out in front of the Polish prime minister's offices for nearly two weeks to protest working conditions and demand higher wages. Poland has the lowest number of working doctors to its population in the EU, and its nurses are also stretched thin. Czarek Sokolowski/AP Photo

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

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.

Exhausted from working in such an understaffed system, he is among a group of health care workers who have come to Warsaw from across Poland for an around-the-clock protest outside the prime minister's office that has gone on for nearly two weeks.

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 September 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 $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 student, 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."