Health care workers in Cologne: “We are fighting for all of society”

The nursing strike at university hospitals in Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, has now entered its fifth week. More than 1,500 strikers and supporters came to Cologne for a central strike protest on Wednesday, June 1. The day-long protest expressed their determination to keep fighting until genuine changes are made to their intolerable working conditions.

The experiences of the past few years have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. In the coronavirus pandemic, the official policy of “profits before lives,” which had already caused a nursing crisis, has brought the health system in Germany close to collapse. Instead of responding to the crisis and relieving the burden on nursing staff, the federal and state governments have decided to invest €100 billion for the country’s armed forces.

Demonstration of health care workers in Cologne (Photo: WSWS) [Photo: WSWS]

In Cologne, nursing staff described the enormous pressure under which they have been working for the past two-and-a-half years.

Marie, who works as a night nurse in the oncology department of Aachen University Hospital, reported that she is expected to care for 32 patients. “Unfortunately, that is normal for us.” Rebecca from Cologne said, “In nursing, people work 10, 11 or 14 days in a row. For operations, the question is not ‘Is this necessary?’ but ‘Will this bring in money?’ People are discharged without being healthy. That is inhumane … There should be much more money for nursing!”

Several wards at the University Hospital in Cologne are “understaffed and underpaid,” reported Jannis, a physiotherapist whose work involves visiting departments across the hospital. “Everyone is running around and working under intense pressure.” Kirsten, a specialist in an intensive care unit for 30 years, declared, “My colleagues have had enough. Some of them quit during the Corona pandemic. They had to work at the limit all the time; now they are gone.” Nurses were working “under a maximum workload,” said the nurse, a situation which bodes badly for the future.

On the day of the strike, the posters carried read: “Out of breath and rushing through the shift until nursing staff collapse,” “Come in and burn out” and “Please die slowly, we don’t have any time.”

“The way we are currently working is not fair to the patients or us,” said nurse Maurizio. “This has been going on for many years, but Corona has once again made it clear to everyone. Now is the right moment to do something effective.”

Maurizio works on a gastroenterology (internal medicine) ward. He reported that often seniors from the old people’s homes are brought in a dehydrated and poor condition. This shows that the conditions in hospitals are just the tip of an iceberg. “It’s like an unending circle,” Maurizio said, “nursing homes are also overworked.” The pandemic, he said, has led to “many losses,” both professionally and personally. “We worked in a danger zone, had to limit our private contacts, and have additional workloads up to this day due to testing measures and cutbacks.”

Many of those in attendance at the protest declared that they are making a stand for all of society. After all, they said, anyone can get sick, and the strike is widely supported by the working population.

The media, however, are doing all they can to play down and minimise coverage of the strike, which has been going on for more than four weeks and has led to the closure of two-thirds of the operating theatres and massive cancellations at all six university hospitals in North Rhine-Westphalia—Aachen, Bonn, Düsseldorf, Essen, Cologne and Münster. Even so, there was only limited media coverage of the latest Cologne protest.

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