Nurses are not just the front line — we are the only line

Posted on March 23, 2021 in Health Debates

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Contributors

The second wave of the pandemic has been an even worse assault on the health care system than the first. Now, with warnings of a third wave nearing, nurses — the largest in numbers on the front line — continue to be overlooked.

It is with deep, sad irony that we have portrayed nurses as heroes during this pandemic, while simultaneously rejecting their requests for better compensation and providing few incentives to solve the nursing shortage in our province.

During the first wave, nurses across Ontario took to the streets to protest Bill 124, which restricted nursing unions from bargaining for more than a 1 per cent pay increase, while exempting other front liners such as firefighters or police. The Ontario Nurses’ Association has voiced its disappointment about this bill on several occasions, to no avail. Looking past the fact that this bill fundamentally defeats the purpose of union bargaining altogether, the most appalling part is that it was upheld during the height of a pandemic, when nurses were most burdened and most vital to this province.

During the second wave, the public continued to receive stimulus payments as they had during the first, yet health care workers’ incentives were discontinued — despite the fact that hospitals were beyond capacity, and mental health problems and burnout were on the rise. The pandemic pay for nurses ended with the first wave, and was not renewed.

Perhaps the only concession nurses received during this pandemic was early access to a limited supply of vaccines for some; however, even regarding vaccinations, nurses were short-ended as they were not offered a seat on the vaccine task force. Even though it is nurses who actually administer shots regularly, nurses who are trained in leadership and advocacy as foundations of our profession, and nurse managers who actually run hospital units and clinics throughout Ontario, nurses were not consulted.

As we enter a potential third wave, hospitals are still over capacity and ICU space continues to be limited. Nurses and other health care workers are facing unprecedented levels of mental health challenges and exhaustion, as they continue to work amidst fear, uncertainty and a slow vaccine rollout.

Already, we are seeing studies showing an alarmingly high number of nurses considering leaving their jobs at the bedside within the year. Perhaps the continuous devaluation of nurses is to blame. While the government has been addressing this as an access issue by recently promoting the new college-based Ontario nursing programs, the nursing shortage is due to issues of job satisfaction, funding, and safe staffing, which are not being adequately addressed.

The unfortunate reality is that the front line of health care is actually the only line of health care, and its progressive erosion presents a challenge for the near future to retain and grow the nursing profession with meaningful changes reflective of accurate valuation and justice.

Enxhi Kondi is an emergency department nurse in the GTA.

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