I was reading a great report in a leading American newspaper about the problems faced by people working in the US health system when the coronavirus pandemic hit the country. I was struck by the account of a nurse who was describing her horror at the sight of patients lying on beds in the corridors. As the woman told the newspaper, she could no longer put up with conditions at the clinic and eventually quit.
Hospital beds in the corridors? If you ask a Greek doctor or a nurse, this has been the norm for decades for any hospital on emergency duty. Anyone who has visited a major state hospital on emergency duty during peak times will tell you it’s pretty much like being on a battlefield.
An experienced doctor decisively sends the cases where they should go while relatives around him shout, patients scream in pain and a security guard tries to impose order. Stretcher bearers, nurses and doctors give all they have. Despite the image of chaos, the system works. I guess a foreign doctor or nurse would struggle to do two to three such shifts. The makeshift beds (known in Greek as “rantza”) prepare you for everything: the unexpected, the chaos, the coronavirus.
In the case of Greece, we were fortunate because the right decisions and accurate predictions prevented the health system from being put to an extreme test. In other words, we did not have to go through a situation like those experienced in Italy or Britain. This had been exactly the aim; and it was achieved.
The country’s good public hospitals showed they have what it takes to withstand an unprecedented crisis. Citizens and politicians understood the need to reinforce the health system.
However, caution is needed. Bulking up the system is one thing while exploiting it for political objectives is another. The people who are for good reason being hired at the moment should feel the sense of responsibility which comes with their new duties. They should be driven by professionalism.
Local MPs need to realize that the pressure for every provincial town to host an intensive care unit is absurd. ICUs without patients and specialized doctors will be subsumed in the quest for votes.
The health system needs a revamp. There is good human capital out there for the job, and experience in crisis management. There are foundations and private enterprises that wish to contribute. But the people who support the system must be rewarded better. And experts must be left to do their job. If politicians need to lure voters, let them find a way that is less harmful to the public interest.