A weakened healthcare system is the only thing between us and the second wave of the coronavirus, as, since May last year, the number of healthcare workers in Hungary has decreased from 122.4 thousand to 115.9 thousand. This means that about 6.5 thousand workers have left the industry; a shocking change in the direst of situations.
Adrianna Soós, the chairperson of the Independent Health Trade Union in Hungary (Független Egészségügyi Szakszervezet), said to Népszava: “These 6.5 thousand employees are definitely missing from the healthcare system, and they mostly left in recent months. Even in the past, there were very few specialists, and the intensive care was under a particularly high workload.” The chairperson of the trade union does not know what exactly might have caused the current unprecedented dwindle in the number of workers in the healthcare system. She highlighted that
this could be a serious issue as the second wave of the epidemic is just around the corner.
There have been several events in recent months that may have led to this decrease in numbers. The healthcare system has been operating with reduced capacity since the epidemic. Hospitals let fewer patients occupy beds, so a smaller staff is enough. According to the latest data of the Central Statistical Office in Hungary, only 53.3% of active beds are currently in service. Last year, two-thirds of the beds (68.4%) housed patients. Only a few chronic patients were able to return.
Last year, 85% of beds for chronic patients were occupied, while it is only 52.5% now.
Many healthcare workers have suffered a 20-30% drop in their income due to the epidemic, as the additional means of earning money have temporarily disappeared during the emergency. Normally, half or two-thirds of healthcare workers and almost all doctors have second or third jobs.
Instead of the normal 40 hours a week, doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers work 60 hours a week – or even more, if we add on-call services – to make a living.
When the emergency was declared, these extra work possibilities in Hungary and even abroad were unavailable for an unpredictable period of time. In some places, the heads of institutions did not allow their employees to have a second job in order to have enough people standby if the healthcare system became overloaded. Others banned second jobs to prevent workers from bringing the virus into the institution from elsewhere.
A significant part of the loss of professionals during the first wave of the epidemic may have been caused by the loss of healthcare professionals working in addition to retirement. It was especially trying for them due to the uncertainties of the situation. At first, they were sent home for their own good as they were especially endangered by the virus. They were prohibited from coming into direct contact with patients. In many places, they were simply fired, others were given teleconsultation tasks, but there were employers whose previous salary was reduced by 100-200,000 forints (€300-600). They were later allowed to return to work at their own risk, but the majority felt humiliated by the way they were treated. Two-thirds of these professionals never returned to their previous jobs.
But it was not just retirees who complained about the circumstances and the government instructions. Others may have been discouraged from serving on the ‘forefront’ of the epidemic because
healthcare workers did not feel that they were protected by the government. They had little to no access to protective equipment for many months.
General practitioners and hospital staff often complained about the lack of such equipment. Dentists in primary care – whose work involved a particularly high risk of infection – have reported even in August that protective equipment such as masks and disinfectant are very hard to come by or that they are very expensive if they manage to get them. International data also indicates how in danger healthcare professionals really are: 15-20% became infected during the epidemic.
Nevertheless, they have not been systematically tested in Hungary.
The second wave of the epidemic will be even worse in social care. According to Adrianna Soós, the number of employees has decreased by 13,000. This is also worrying because the financial situation of social care workers is even worse than that of healthcare workers; “their income is at least 100,000 forints (€300) lower, and they were also excluded from the one-time government-issued bonus of 500,000 forints (€1,500).