The Korean Health and Medical Workers' Union (KHMU), which has over 80,000 medical professionals, including nurses and care workers, applied for labor dispute mediation on Tuesday. The union is demanding the establishment of criteria for who is put in charge of COVID-19 treatment hospitals, the institutionalization of extra pay for medical worker’s safety, and the legislation of a limit on the number of patients assigned to one nurse. Unless an agreement is reached, they will go on a general strike from September 2, which will cause issues in the operation of over 130 medical institutions, including the National Medical Center.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in South Korea in January last year, medical workers have been battling the virus at the forefront of patient treatment and disease control for 19 months. Dealing with a heavy workload under suffocating gear, they “sweat so much that you can feel it filling up the shoes.” Six out of 10 respondents of a survey conducted by the union said that they are “physically and mentally exhausted.” However, trying to resolve issues with a strike is not an appropriate approach.
South Korea’s new daily COVID-19 cases recorded over 2,000 on Wednesday again in eight days. The fourth wave of infection is yet to be under control. Imagine what would happen if treatment for patients and disease control efforts are discontinued even for a single day. Therefore, the union’s argument that the strike is for patients and South Korean citizens is not convincing. The KHMU should actively discuss with the government to find a solution other than a strike in consideration of the severity of COVID-19 and the health of the South Korean people.
What’s critical is increased staffing. Medical workers’ accumulated exhaustion is a serious issue as the pandemic is prolonged. The government is pursuing a measure to add 1,273 new workers at public health centers in the first half of this year but it is not enough to handle COVID-19 patients. Measures to temporarily hire nurses on the leave of absence and reduce the burden of the medical staff at public medical institutions by admitting more COVID-19 patients to private hospitals should be examined. Raising extra pay for the better treatment of medical staff should be also discussed with the central government, local governments, and hospitals.