LIMA – Doctors in Peru, which has the world’s highest mortality rate from coronavirus and is sixth in the number of cases, launched a 48-hour strike on Tuesday to protest working conditions and the government’s handling of the pandemic.
The walkout, which follows a similar show of force last month, comes amid a decline in new COVID-19 deaths and infections, though that trend is of little consolation to the loved ones of the 199 Peruvian medical professionals who have died of the virus.
“The pandemic has unveiled the crude reality of the health system in the country,” Teodoro Quiñones, secretary-general of the Sinamssop medical workers union, told EFE.
The current job action is focused on hospitals that are part of EsSalud, a major component of Peru’s fragmented public health apparatus.
EsSalud, with an annual budget of 12 billion soles ($3.34 billion), is run by the Labor Ministry, not the Health Ministry, and serves the minority of Peruvian workers who are in formal employment.
While the strike was called by Sinamssop, which represents some 10,500 physicians, odontologists and pharmacists, it enjoys support from the larger Medical Federation of Peru.
“We estimate that (the strike) will be honored by 90 percent of health personnel,” Quiñones said, explaining that emergency and critical care – including treatment coronavirus patients – will not be affected by the stoppage.
Protesting physicians gathered early Tuesday outside Edgardo Rebagliatti Hospital in Lima, Peru’s largest health care facility, to call for improved working conditions and job security.
Sinamssop’s chief demand is the removal of former Cabinet minister Fiorela Molinelli as head of EsSalud, the union leader told EFE.
“We would be appreciative if the president (Martin Vizcarra) withdraws Molinelli. With that, we would be a position to end the strike,” Quiñones said.
EsSalud has been in the forefront of the government effort against COVID-19, notably with its successful conversion of the 2019 Pan American Games village in Lima into the country’s largest quarantine site, with roughly 3,000 beds.
The agency has also invested resources in expanding hospital capacity nationwide, but Quiñones contends that some new hospitals “in places such as Cuzco, Chimbote and Trujillo are nearly empty.”
And despite the high level of spending, medical personnel have had to contend with shortages of personal protective equipment, the union leader said.
The union also wants to see implementation of a law passed by Congress over the objections of the Vizcarra administration that would require EsSalud to promote all doctors hired on temporary contracts to permanent employees after two years on the job.
Vizcarra has challenged the legislation in court on the grounds that Congress failed to appropriate the $300 million in additional funds that EsSalud would need to follow the law.
Peru has lost more than 32,000 lives to the coronavirus, which equates to 99 fatalities per every 100,000 inhabitants. COVID-19 is also the suspected cause in another 46,000 deaths.
Confirmed cases in Peru have topped 800,000.