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South Korean Medical Crisis: Nurses & Healthcare Workers Strike Over Unfulfilled Promises

strike South Korea

Tens of thousands of South Korean nurses staged a walkout following President Yoon Suk Yeol‘s veto of a proposed law to enhance their wages and working conditions. Their actions have impacted Koreans needing healthcare, with surgeries cancelled and patients discharged.

This decision resulted in public demonstrations and has been widely criticised by the Korean Nurses Association (KNA). Previously, the president had pledged to improve nurses’ working conditions during his election campaign.

Doctors and nursing assistants protested against the bill, fearing it might compromise their employment by enabling nurses to deliver treatment without a medical license. Nurses argue this viewpoint lacks substance and highlight the nation’s increasing demand for care centres due to an ageing population.

Estimates place the number of workers on strike at about 45,000 to 50,000.

Impact of the Strike

Even though the strike’s impact is considered minimal, Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong has acted. He has called for an emergency meeting. The aim is to monitor the situation closely. This is to ensure that patient care does not suffer during this period. He urged medical facilities to remain vigilant during these testing times.

A Nationwide Walkout

Fast forward to July, the medical unrest escalated as members of the Korean Health and Medical Workers’ Union (KHMU) also joined the strike. Roughly 45,000 healthcare professionals, including caregivers and nurses, criticised the government for neglecting the 2021 agreement to hire more medical personnel and improve their working conditions.

Consequences of the Strike

While the union attempted to minimise disruptions by exempting essential workers from the protest, surgical cancellations and disturbances to medical services have already occurred at numerous hospitals, including the National Cancer Center. The union has threatened an indefinite strike if the government continues to exhibit an “irresponsible attitude.”

So far, the strike has led to cancellations and postponements of consultations and surgeries, advising patients with mild symptoms to seek discharge. Even the National Cancer Center has ceased to accept new patients for now. Hospitals are cancelling planned surgeries and discharging current patients.

Medical Institutions and Workers in Strike

Various medical institutions, including some 20 large hospitals in Seoul and the surrounding Gyeonggi Province, have participated in the strike. According to the KHMU, around 45,000 members are currently involved in the walkout, an impressive increase from the 2004 strike.

The Government’s Reaction

The government, on its part, has been stringent, warning of “firm responses” if the strike results in any harm to public health. Health and Welfare Minister Cho Kyu-hong is urging the union to end the strike. He is appealing to healthcare workers to return to their duties. At the same time, he provides reassurance. He commits that the government is focused on enhancing the working environment for these healthcare professionals.

Conclusion

This widespread strike underscores healthcare workers’ frustrations. Their fatigue is driven by the long-lasting COVID-19 pandemic. Also, unfulfilled governmental promises also add to their discontent. Therefore, these events underscore the importance of finding swift and comprehensive solutions to resolve this healthcare crisis in Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

Photo Credit: Yonhap

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