In the midst of unprecedented COVID-19 cases, hospitals across Canada face shortages of beds, supplies, administrative staff, doctors, and especially nurses to handle the surge in patients. Hospitals were already overburdened before the COVID-19 pandemic and throughout the first four waves, but the record-setting spread of the Omicron variant has pushed Canada’s health-care system to the brink.

Governments could stop the exodus of nurses and bring more into the system by raising wages and making nursing school free. Instead, they’re overworking nurses and keeping raises below the rate of inflation, making the problem worse.

A deep crisis

The situation is so dire that patients who require “non-urgent” surgeries have been turned away, and hospitals have set up unheated tents for triage. Nurses are being forced to work extreme hours with more patients, with limited sick days and vacations. Stories have even surfaced of nurses skipping five-minute breaks because there’s no time to give patients their pills.

Such a stressful work environment with no increase in pay has pushed nurses to leave their jobs in droves. Even before the Omicron wave, 60 per cent of Canadian nurses said they’d find a new career within the next year. According to the Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA), there were 20,000 nursing vacancies in Ontario as of December, with similarly high vacancies across the country.

The nursing shortage has been covered in the media, but stories of the terrible conditions in hospitals have gone under-reported, partly due to healthcare workers’ fear of discipline if they speak out. In lieu of proper media coverage, some nurses have set up social media pages where health-care workers can share their stories anonymously, such as the Instagram page nursewithsign416. The page includes stories about nurses working 20 hours or more per day, the Ontario government sending cease and desist orders to hospitals that pay their nurses premiums, new grads being assigned to units they don’t have experience in, hospitals running out of clean scrubs, nurses buying their own cleaning materials, and many others.

Health-care workers told Fightback that they’re constantly worrying about supplies running out, worrying that waiting rooms are so crowded that patients are leaving with a worse disease than what they came in with, witnessing patients in crisis wait eight to nine hours to see a crisis team, not having enough time to call their patients’ families, dealing with confusing visitor policies, facing increased violence from patients, having to wear a single mask for their entire shift, having to go outside to have a drink of water because you can’t remove your mask inside, and being excessively monitored by management. Most tragically, a GTA healthcare worker reported that an elderly woman died because she was on the waiting list for 18 months and couldn’t receive necessary care.

Criminal inaction

While the government has used the nursing shortage as an excuse for the huge backlogs, they refuse to look at measures which can keep nurses in the field and attract more nursing students. Most obviously, they could raise nurses’ pay and benefits. The job is stressful, but higher pay could be the difference as to whether a nurse thinks it’s worth it. Mental health services, paid vacations, massage therapy, gym memberships, and other benefits could help offset the stress placed on nurses.

Finally, the government could make nursing school free to encourage more students to enter the field. Even if they’re passionate about nursing, prospective students are less likely to enter a field in crisis if they know it’ll cost them an average of $21,922, possibly plunging them in debt for decades. Making nursing school—and all education—free would be a first good step to making sure there are fully-trained nurses in hospitals when the next era-defining pandemic hits.

However, neither the federal government nor any of the provincial or territorial governments have taken the necessary steps to address the crisis. Instead, they’ve used the nursing shortage as an excuse to chip away at union rights by hiring temporary, non-unionized nurses from staffing agencies. Contract nurses are often paid higher than full-time nurses, but governments would rather hire them than full-time nurses because they don’t want to give unions more bargaining power.

Instead of improving these conditions, governments have only provided band-aid solutions such as the aforementioned contract nurses, as well as hiring nursing students at low pay and even bringing in the military. Like a dog eating its own tail, some policies designed to address the nursing shortage are only making the COVID-19 crisis worse, such as hospitals forcing nurses to work even if they’re in close contact with a COVID-positive family member. Contrary to scientific evidence, governments have lowered the isolation period for symptomatic workers from ten to five days. The Quebec government is even telling some COVID-positive healthcare workers to keep working despite their infection.

Clearly, governments aren’t listening to scientists or healthcare workers, only to their Bay Street friends who want taxes spent on corporate subsidies, not health-care. Cathryn Hoy, president of the ONA, said that nurses should have pay parity with other emergency workers like firefighters and police. However, the Ontario government won’t even lift the 1 per cent public sector pay cap, a pay cut when factored for inflation. If the government really cared about nurses and the fight against COVID, the government would have immediately increased wages for nurses to attract more workers to the field. Instead we are witnessing the exact opposite. 

Health-care workers are reasonably concerned that coordinated walkouts will incur discipline from management (as was the case when hundreds of Alberta health-care workers walked off the job in October 2020), but there’s still discussion in private group chats about mass work refusals. Rosie Buote, Durham health-care worker and representative at CUPE 6364, said in an interview with Fightback, “We need mass actions across the entire public service,” and, “we should’ve had 10 general strikes at this point!”

This is the boldness we need from our labour leaders. Petitions, strongly worded letters, and media finger-wagging won’t convince the government of Bay Street to sacrifice profits for the sake of public health. Rather, workers need to exercise the only historically effective tool we have—our labour power—to force the government to hire more health-care workers, increase their pay, and make nursing school free. The nursing shortage can be overcome, but not if it’s left up to capitalists and their loyal representatives in government.