Australia’s underfunded healthcare system faces severe nursing shortages


As the criminal policy of allowing the spread of COVID-19 in Australia results in more than 1,000 cases per day and nearly 2,000 patients already dead, the pressure on the public health system continues to mount.

The emergence of the even more infectious Omicron variant will intensify the crisis, which has seen a nationwide exodus of nurses, including around 20,000 this year.

Nurse holds phone as COVID-19 patient talks with family from intensive care unit [Credit: AP/Daniel Cole]

That’s a 5% loss of the country’s roughly 400,000 nurses, in a system that was sorely understaffed even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of particular concern is the loss of intensive care unit (ICU) nurses, leading to a reduction in available ICU beds since 2020, and elderly care nurses. These two areas are strongly impacted by COVID-19.

It is widely recognized that the public hospital system is flexing under the pressures of the pandemic.

In a recent report, released before the Omicron variant was identified, the Australian Medical Association (AMA) predicted that up to 2,400 hospital beds would likely be needed by COVID-19 patients per average day over the course of the six next months. This would lead to an even greater ramp-up of ambulances and up to 40% reduced capacity for elective surgeries.

The loss of nurses has already resulted in 12,000 vacancies nationwide, forcing some hospitals to shut down entire departments. According to the executive director of the Australian College of Nursing, Kylie Ward, the worst shortages were in intensive care (ICU and emergency departments), maternity, mental health and elderly care services.

Many of the nurses who quit are experienced staff who are needed to train junior nurses and new graduates, thus affecting the ability of the health system to grow and train the workforce.

The horrific conditions to which hospital and elderly care workers have been subjected since March 2020 are undoubtedly a driving cause of resignations. Like their international counterparts, Australian healthcare workers have been subjected to dramatically increased workloads, lack of appropriate PPE, exposure to COVID, traumatic situations and patient deaths. in hospitals overwhelmed with infected patients.

Hannah, a nurse with the New South Wales (NSW) emergency department, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC): “Sometimes we had 70 people in the [emergency] department, ambulances on ramp for hours, COVID patients sitting in the waiting room exposing people … we still haven’t [staff] safe ratios. And people are dying. And that’s why I quit nursing.

Steph, an intensive care nurse in the state of Victoria, in the south of the country, said: “My workplace requires staff to look after patients with equipment they have no training for. When you bring up these issues with management, you come across a look that says “stop being difficult and do it”.

In comments to an ABC article on the decline in critical care nurses, one health worker wrote: “The covid crisis has simply amplified the contempt with which NSW Health treats all of its staff. They keep sending “Are you okay?” »Emails when all our stress is related to lack of staff and resources. We are dehumanized and not listened to as experts when we raise issues… we are prohibited from speaking to the media. In the end, people get exhausted and leave.

While the burden of COVID-19 cases has so far been mostly limited to the populated states of NSW and Victoria, staff shortages and deteriorating working conditions are leading to burnout and resignations in all states and territories. Amy, a nurse with the Queensland Emergency Department, said: “We are understaffed every shift in our emergency department and are at full capacity every day. Most nurses will work double shifts (16-18 hours) so that we can provide safe patient care. We are extremely exhausted.

Such experiences were corroborated in a study from Monash University, which estimated that up to 40 percent of healthcare workers in Victoria had developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at the end of the period. last year following the waves of COVID-19 in this state.

Despite the brutality and challenges of their jobs, nurses are the lowest paid professional workers, with a median annual salary of less than $ 80,000 in Sydney, one of the most expensive cities in the world.

Resignations are not limited to nurses only. Surveys show that one-fifth of frontline and emergency service workers are considering leaving their current jobs. While exhaustion and burnout from COVID-related workloads is an immediate cause, the situation facing health workers is ultimately due to the persistent attacks on health workers and public health. over the decades, perpetrated by Labor and Liberal-National governments.

Health workers opposed dangerous personnel levels for years before the pandemic. Last year, before the Delta epidemics, nurses and other workers in NSW and Victoria launched multiple strikes, each isolated and betrayed by unions working with governments and healthcare employers.

In 2014, a government-commissioned Health Workforce Australia (HWA) report warned the country would face a shortage of 85,000 nurses by 2025 and 123,000 by 2030. HWA was abolished the same year by the Liberal-National coalition government, without an assessment of the workforce since. With tacit help from the Labor and Green opposition, the Coalition also pushed through $ 50 billion in hospital funding cuts that year.

Previous Labor governments led by Rudd and then Gillard introduced “efficient national prices”, whereby public hospitals would only be funded for current activity levels on the basis of “efficiency”. This does not give them any capacity to anticipate the increase in population or to manage the complexity of patients, who are aging and becoming sicker on average.

No state government has increased funding and infrastructure for public hospitals in real terms since the start of the pandemic. Instead, they froze or capped health worker salaries and allowed shrinking hospital capacity, bursting waiting lists for elective surgeries and ramping up ambulances.

In an attempt to deflect growing public hostility, state governments, feigning poverty, recently launched public appeals for additional federal funding, a proposal Prime Minister Scott Morrison immediately rejected.

The refusal to increase funding for health care is in line with the government’s opposition to measures designed to contain the pandemic. This is a bipartisan policy, driven by the dictates of finance and business to intensify the exploitation of the working class.

The global workers’ investigation into the COVID-19 pandemic, launched by the World Socialist Website, review and outline these policies.

The ruling class and its officials will persist in these murderous policies, even with more dangerous variations. That is why we are calling on Australian and international workers to fight for the formation of grassroots committees in hospitals and in all workplaces. By these means, the working class can institute the only scientific and moral course of action: the elimination of COVID.


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