Doctors and nurses staged a silent but powerful protest on May 17, against the decree of the Belgian government to use untrained nursing staff in health care services.
During a visit of the Belgian Prime Minister Ms Sophie Wilmès to the Saint Peter hospital in Brussels, doctors and nurses lined up in rows on either side of the hospital entrance and each of them turned their back on her as her car approached the hospital entrance. This silent but very forceful protest has been widely publicised.
The General Union of Belgian Nurses called the decree ‘a real slap in the face of the nurses’ profession. Doctors and nurses from twelve hospitals in the country have written to government calling for the decree to be repealed. They have emphasised that not only are nurses highly trained, but that they are doing an exceedingly difficult job under the prevalent circumstances of the pandemic. In fact, Belgium has one of the worst Covid-19 deaths in the world, having recorded 66 deaths per 100,000 people; so far it has claimed over 9,000 lives in Belgium, with over 55,000 confirmed cases. In comparison, the US, another country severely affected by the pandemic, has recorded around 19 deaths per 100,000 people. Earlier, the doctors and nurses in Belgium have also protested budget cuts and low salaries.
On May 10, British PM Boris Johnson made an unexpected announcement on that schools in England would return to in-school teaching from June 1. This came as a shock to the education unions and to schools throughout the landcountry as neither the government nor the Secretary of State for Education had consulted with any of the teaching unions before determining this date. The unions and school administrations they must be consulted before taking any decision involving the safety of young pupils, teachers, staff and others they come in contact with.
On May 13, nine teachers and school workers’ unions came out with a joint statement. They called on the government to postpone the June 1 reopening date. They said that they certainly wanted schools to reopen but only when it is safe to do so. They pointed out that the government was showing a lack of understanding of the dangers of the spread of the coronavirus within schools, and therefrom to parents, siblings and relatives of students, as well as out into the wider community. They expressed the extreme concern of all their members that school staff would not be protected by physical distancing, and that classrooms, especially of young children, could be sources of Covid-19 transmission.
The teachers pointed out that not enough was known at this stage to set any early return date of schools; and it repeated the principles and tests that should be in place before schools reopen. Their utmost concern is to maintain the safety and welfare of all pupils and staff. To do this, the unions have called for the rolling out of national Test, Track and Trace procedures in all schools, nurseries, and colleges, as well as the provision of additional resources and personal protective equipment (PPE) for all schools. Finally, the statement called on the government to form a Covid-19 Education Taskforce to involve schools, unions and the government, which would be set up specifically to discuss and organise measures needed to be taken to safeguard all the concerned people while continuing the education of the children.
Brazil currently has the third highest number of confirmed COVID-19 infections in the world, and the brunt of the pandemic has naturally fallen upon the health workers.
The overall situation in respect of public health is poor and the situation is worse in working class areas, some of which have virtually no health services. On Monday, May 18, protesters began a march from Paraisópolis, one of the largest and poorest neighbourhoods of São Paulo, to the Palácio dos Bandeirantes, the seat of the state government. The marchers were denouncing their government which had abandoned them to hunger, constant lack of water and denial of access to health care. The demonstration was blocked by the shock troops of the military police.
In Rio de Janeiro, more than 30,000 cases and 3,000 deaths have been confirmed. The real number of fatalities caused by COVID-19 is twice that registered by the government. The health system of the state had collapsed by early May. A violent protest erupted in the Puraquequara Prison Unit on May 2,in which inmates protested against the rotten food they are served and the absence of any medical assistance. Again, on Monday, May 18, families of prisoners protested for their rights in the states of Bahia and Piauí, both in the northeast of Brazil, holding posters saying: “Prisoners have their rights too” and “Coronavirus kills.”
On the same day (May 18) there was another health workers’ protest, in Teresina. Nurses and nursing technicians of the Emergency Hospital of Teresina (HUT) demonstrated against the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) after the death of a colleague. Health professionals at HUT denounced the high rate of contamination, especially in the “non-COVID” wards, where workers are even less equipped and end up coming into contact with people infected by the disease. They also demanded an additional 40 percent wage increase to compensate for the hazardous conditions in which they have to work.
The coronavirus is killing more nurses in Brazil than anywhere else in the world. According to the Federal Nursing Council, 15,000 Brazilian nurses have been infected and 137 have been killed by Covid – 19. All over the world, the International Council of Nurses has recorded approximately 260 deaths by mid-May 2020. The Federal Council of Medicine (CFM) announced that it had received about 17,000 complaints from doctors who work in Covid – 19 care centres, mainly about the lack of PPE, followed by the lack of supplies, testing and medicines and the lack of professionals in the units. Health care workers have organised a series of militant demonstrations, in the last two weeks. Dozens of protests and strikes by health care workers have taken place throughout Brazil.
Workers for food delivery apps controlled by large multinational companies have engaged in a series of strikes and protestactions. Their demands are better delivery rates, safer working conditions and for essential protective equipment (PPE) that the workers have already paid for but not received. On May 14, food delivery workers in Vitória, the capital of Espírito Santo, organised a protest shutting down the iFood application for a few hours. During the pandemic, their already precarious working conditions have worsened and many workers are being thrown out of their jobs without any warning by the company. Food delivery workers all over Brazil are planning a strike on May 30.
United States of America
Hundreds of workers went on strike at six fruit packing companies in Yakima County, Washington state, demanding that the companies provide adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), hazard pay and safe working conditions to reduce the risk of contracting Covid-19. On May 15, the first group of workers walked out at Allan Brothers Fruit Company, after 12 workers tested positive for the virus. This workers’ action triggered a successive string of walkouts at nearby facilities: Matson Fruit, Jack Frost Fruit, Monson Fruit, and most recently, Columbia Reach and Madden Fruit.
Opposition to dangerous working conditions continues to grow in the meatpacking industry, where at least 12,000 workers have tested positive and at least 48 have died. After a wave of strikes and other job actions in Georgia, California, Iowa, Nebraska, and other states forced the shutdown of scores of plants, US president Trump invoked the Defence Production Act to order their reopening. In the week after Trump’s action, the virus spread at more than twice the national rate in US counties with major meatpacking plants. On May 13, workers walked out of a poultry plant in West Columbia, South Carolina protesting the hazardous working conditions. Protests are also being reported from other meat packing plants across the USA.
Three hundred garment workers walked out of a north Mississippi pillow factory on May 11, after a co-worker tested positive and the management sought to cover it up. The walkout in Mississippi follows last month’s protest by garment workers at American Apparel in Selma, Alabama. These workers sew facemasks for US soldiers but have been denied the means to protect themselves from infection!
Sanitation workers went on strike protesting their low pay and hazardous working conditions in New Orleans in early May amid the pandemic, which has ravaged the state of Louisiana like other states of USA. The workers, who are paid abysmally low wages to pick up trash sometimes from 4 am to 4 pm every day, demanded a pay increase to $15 an hour.
In mid-May, the private waste management company that employed the sanitation workers, Metro Disposal, fired several of the striking workers. Now the company is using prison labourers as strike-breakers! According to Louisiana labour laws, prisoners convicted of non-violent crime can be hired as sanitation workers at only 13 percent of the usual hourly wage, essentially at slave wages!
However, the citizens of New Orleans, as well as other essential service workers also forced to work in dangerous conditions have voiced their support for the striking sanitation workers.