Spain hailed its medic heroes during the coronavirus crisis, but as infections fall many frontline staff have been left depressed and traumatised by their experience, fearful of an insecure future.
With 36.3 percent of public healthcare workers without a permanent contract, according to one survey, demonstrations calling for change are growing.
“We have to end this low-budget health system,” says Patricia Calvo, a 40-year-old doctor, who made her own protective gear out of bin bags at the height of the pandemic.
“I finished specialising in 2010 but I’m still on a temporary contract,” says the doctor from the southern city of Granada where she works with 14 other medics, most of whom are in the same situation.
“There was a major outbreak at our medical centre, people died and (at the start) we had to deal with everything on our own.”
When the virus hit, costing more than 28,400 lives, Calvo and her husband, who is also a doctor, spent months without hugging their children for fear of infecting them.
And they themselves were afraid of getting sick in a country where 10 percent of healthcare workers contracted the virus, twice the rate of the general population.
“If there is a new outbreak in the autumn, we could find ourselves facing a very serious lack of staff,” warned Pilar Grande, a 48-year-old nurse at a Madrid hospital.
“The staff are exhausted, there are a huge number of people off, a lot of anxiety and many people with symptoms of depression.”
Since May, demonstrations calling for “quality public healthcare” have multiplied.
Elena Barci, a 39-year-old auxiliary nurse in Madrid, says she’s worked for 12 years on “abusive contracts”.
“They take you on for five days, from Monday to Friday” so they don’t need to pay for the weekend, “and the contract starts again on Monday”.
In March, she was called in to help at a hospital in Madrid.
“People were dying and you didn’t even have time to find out their name. You would leave in tears, while knowing that once it was all over, you’d be redundant again.”
She left at the end of May, but was contracted again at the start of July and is now dreaming of “a decent contract”.
Medical residents, or specialists, working at Madrid hospitals recently went on strike over salaries which have still not reached the levels they were in 2009 when the last financial crisis took hold.
“Jobs are very insecure which creates widespread anger,” explained Dr Vicente Matas who has seen many younger colleagues leaving for France, Germany or Finland.
“And the pandemic has been the last straw when they’ve had to face the virus without adequate means of protection and with tremendous workloads.”
Bolstering public healthcare
Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has pledged to invest nine billion euros into Spain’s decentralised public health system.
“We cannot come out of this crisis with a public health system that is weaker than what we already had, which was a result of the austerity policies” put in place by regional governments following the 2008 crisis, he said.
Beatriz Gonzalez Lopez-Valcarcel, who specialises in the healthcare economy, said public health spend “reached its maximum in 2009 and was reduced every year between 2010 and 2013, by a total of some 8.2 billion euros.”
It began to increase again in 2014 and by 2018, had reached 2009 levels, she said.
In Madrid, officials say the health system has been “reinforced with more than 10,100 additional hires, who will be kept in place until December 31”.
But staff want the contracts to be extended beyond that date.