Workers continue to protest in defense of public health in Madrid

Health workers and patients converge in mass protests as Madrid’s conservative regional government refuses to prioritize the public health systemJanuary 17, 2023 by Peoples Health Dispatch

Protesters during pro-public health system demonstration in Madrid, January 15. Photo: María Pastor

Family physicians and pediatricians in Madrid’s primary health care system resumed the strike launched in November last year, as negotiations with the regional government balk. The health workers continued with the industrial action shortly after another mass protest in support of public health care on Sunday, January 15, and only days ahead of a demonstration planned by health workers on January 18.

A wide base of support for public health care has been built in Madrid over the past weeks, with trade unions, neighborhood groups, professional associations, and citizens becoming more and more critical of the state of the health system. Approximately 30,000 people joined the protest on Sunday, coordinated by the local organization of Marea Blanca, called La Mesa en Defensa de la Sanidad Pública de Madrid, openly criticizing the commodification of healthcare that the region has been witnessing for years.

When it comes to the primary health care workers’ struggle, there has been no progress in the negotiations between them and the regional government, says Alberto Cotillas from the Madrid Society of Family and Community Medicine (Sociedad Madrileña de Medicina Familiar y Comunitaria, SoMaMFyC). “While health workers have attempted to keep the conversation going, including by proactively suggesting candidates for the negotiating committee, the regional government chose to remain silent after our last meeting on January 11,” he told People’s Health Dispatch.

Instead, Regional President Isabel Diaz Ayuso has continued with her attempts to paint the industrial action as harmful for patients, calling for the doctors to call off the strike as the country faces an increase in respiratory diseases. Judging from the wide support that demonstrations in favor of universal public health care are receiving, however, it seems that this strategy is failing.

Health workers remain undeterred in their actions also because they are fighting for a system which would be more accessible and more friendly towards patients. As many trade unionists and professional representatives highlighted over the past weeks, primary health care is the base of the health system. In case of its collapse, the rest of the system would soon follow.

Because of the fall back in negotiations, one section of the striking workers is considering alternative actions, including lock-ins and opting out of voluntary activities they usually carry out, like teaching tutorials or participating in various committees. The workers have also said they would monitor very closely the activities of Isabel Diaz Ayuso and organize pickets and protests during public events where she is planning to appear.

Since November, the strike has been limited to Madrid. But now, health workers in Andalusia, Catalonia, Valencia and other regions are also considering taking action. Warnings have not been issued by those working in primary care alone. Some of the most vocal criticism came from emergency care workers, who have experienced a multifold increase of cases not only because it is flu season but also because patients cannot access the overburdened primary health care services.

As primary health centers are unable to respond to their patients’ needs in real time, people are forced to look for care elsewhere. While the minority can do so in the private sector, for most people, going to emergency wards is the only viable option. In case regional governments do not allocate more resources for health care, pressures on all levels of the system will become chronic and might undermine the health of people in the long term.