“We have been pushed to the breaking point,” says Natalie Stake-Doucet, president of the Quebec Nurses Association. “More than 2,000 nurses in Quebec have quit since the pandemic hit. Hospital administrations and the Ministry of Health need to look at the structural problems forcing them to leave and contributing to staff shortages,” she says. “The way many hospitals function is highly problematic, yet I don’t see the government willing to address this.”
Ten months in, and in the middle of a second COVID wave, Quebec nurses and other healthcare workers may find themselves better prepared and protected against the virus, but they’re running on empty. With Canada officially surpassing 19,000 deaths from COVID (9,500+ in Quebec alone) and 7,000 healthcare workers absent from work, they need more support.
Healthcare workers are overworked, physically and mentally exhausted, and often isolated to protect their families and friends from the virus. Added to this mix are a lockdown and a curfew as well as anti-maskers and those who insist on downplaying the severity of COVID-19. The toll on their mental health has been enormous.
Exhaustion and uncertainty
“It’s stressful, we’re tired, we’re mad,” says nurse Cassandre Mondésir in a CityNews report, revealing staff shortages have forced a lot of improvisation. Nurses who work at CLSCs and clinics warn they’ve been transferred to nursing homes and ICUs without the proper training, increasing both their work-related stress and the possible endangerment of patients.
*Jenny* a nurse who works in a Montreal retirement residence, who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of losing her job, told me that, despite their best efforts, the virus has once again managed to infiltrate her workplace, where they are in full lockdown mode, with nine confirmed cases for residents and possibly more.
“These residents might die despite our scrambling and desperate efforts to keep them hydrated and breathing. If they get worse, we need to send them to the hospital, which is a death sentence for them right now, given their age and the triage system that’s in place. They’re lonely and scared and crying out for their children. In the meantime, there has been no responsibility whatsoever from individuals who flaunt the rules and ‘leaders’ who vacillate between autocracy and laissez-faire guidance.”
On his end, Naveed Hussain, a nurse working with COVID patients at the MUHC, describes the situation as “challenging.” “We’re trained for this, to help and care for people who are sick, and we’re certainly better prepared than we were during the first wave, but we’ve also been forced to be creative and make do with what we had sometimes,” he says.
Organized sit-ins a desperate last resort
Nurses at Notre-Dame Hospital recently organized a sit-in to protest forced overtime. What used to be a rare occurrence has now become an inescapable routine for them. This often means nurses work 12-hour shifts unaware of what their monthly schedule will look like and when staff shortages will require them to stay and work double shifts.
“It’s inhumane to expect people to come in to work and not know when they’ll finish their shift,” says Stanke-Doucet. “When it’s repeatedly done, it’s traumatizing. And, most importantly, it’s not a real solution for a chronic problem, it’s only a last resort.”
Last year, nurses at Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital and the Lakeshore General walked off the job or staged sit-ins to put pressure on management. They claimed shortages meant fewer nurses at triage and dangerous nurse-patient ratios.
“Forced overtime leads to nurses quitting the profession and endangers patients’ lives,” says Stanke-Doucet. “The sit-ins are primarily to protect patient care. Every single sit-in that I’ve heard of has improved patient care. There are laws for truck drivers, and how many hours they’re legally allowed to safely be behind the wheel of a truck, yet it’s okay for us to work 16 hours without a break?”
Curfew adds to stress for frontline workers
On top of long hours, healthcare workers must also now contend with both a lockdown and a curfew. “Sometimes we start work really early and finish well after the curfew has started,” says Hussain. “If you’re living alone or are a single parent, when are you supposed to do your grocery shopping or get your essentials? This curfew adds another layer of mental fatigue and planning for us.”
As a person of colour, Hussain is also not oblivious to the extra stress and anxiety the curfew contributes to thousands of healthcare workers and frontline workers.
“I’ve had some bad and some good interactions with police officers and I want to give them the benefit of the doubt, but we’ve all seen the statistics that show that BIPOC are at higher risk of being mistreated by the police. I know this adds a lot of pressure for a lot of people to make sure they get home on time.”
COVID doesn’t discriminate
Despite better protocol and access to PPEs, healthcare workers working in proximity with COVID patients continue to get sick at alarming rates. Hussain himself contracted COVID last April and says it was one of the worst experiences he’s ever had.
“It was awful,” he says. “I’m a healthy 36-year-old with no prior health conditions but COVID knocked me out for two to three months. I’m one of those long-haulers. Even now, I routinely experience lethargy, malaise and bouts of unexplained nausea.”
Hussain is frustrated with COVID deniers. He finds it hard to hear people dismiss it because it primarily affects older people. “Not only is that incredibly ageist, it’s also short-sighted,” he says.
“I work in a unit where we’re treating the most vulnerable, the elderly, and cancer patients whose immune system is compromised and who caught COVID. I can assure you this virus is insidious, it’s deadly, and it’s very real. It affects people of all ages, all ethnicities and all countries. It’s a global crisis. We either stand together or we fall divided.”
*Jenny* echoes that frustration. “Healthcare workers are drowning in double shifts, we’re exhausted and disheartened to know that we try to do everything in our power to protect and save people, while others basically spit on everyone by way of their actions. Tired of winter? Sure, fly south, pick up a more infectious variant, fail to quarantine when you get back and infect a healthcare worker. Doesn’t matter; the virus is only disastrous for the elderly, right?”
Given these testimonials, an open letter penned by Quebec media asking the government to allow them access to healthcare institutions to show the ravages of COVID-19 couldn’t come at a better time. “Out of sight, out of mind,” has allowed some people to minimize the severity of this pandemic and media should be allowed to bear witness to this and, hopefully, wake some folks up to the horrific realities of this virus.
Hussain, for his part, hopes the government is thinking long-term. “I’m a born and raised proud Quebecer,” he says, “and I keep watching Quebec stagnate on the same recurring issues. We need to invest in our infrastructure. Yes, this has been an unprecedented crisis, but I hope policy makers are working to ensure we improve access to healthcare and prevent something like this from ever happening again. This is what they should be prioritizing.”
Stake-Doucet agrees. “There is a continued denial of a problem by the government that is leading to a hemorrhage of nurses in our healthcare system. We don’t want to engage in sit-ins, but this is the only way to get them to listen to us.” ■
Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.