Moroccan medics protest over conditions, staff shortages as pandemic surges

By Ahmed Eljechtimi

RABAT (Reuters) – Working conditions are so bad for some medics in Morocco handling a surging coronavirus outbreak that they have staged protests against inadequate staffing and poorly equipped facilities.

The kingdom recorded a record 2,430 cases on Friday and has confirmed more than 1,000 new cases every day since July – the steepest increase among its North African peers.

Some intensive care units in hospitals are overrun while other wards are full, according to unions representing health workers, and the national nurses’ movement said at least 526 of their members had been infected, aggravating staff shortages.

Anas Qarim, a nurse working at a hospital designated to treat COVID-19 in the central city of Meknes, said there were just three nurses and two doctors to treat 120 patients.

“Imagine wearing full protective gear in the summer heat working continuously for hours,” he said, speaking at a protest last week by dozens of medics in Rabat demanding better pay and conditions, at least the third such demonstration in two weeks.

A Health Ministry spokesman did not respond to requests for comment about working conditions and inadequate staffing.

King Mohammed VI said last month that the health situation “does not leave much room for optimism”.

Despite an intense three-month lockdown, the virus spread in Morocco and surged after restrictions were lifted, reaching more than 86,000 cases in total.

For patients, problems have mounted. Queues for testing start forming at 5 a.m. at the Sheikh Khalifa hospital in Casablanca, three hours before opening time, according to a Reuters witness.

Those who are seriously sick struggle to get into hospital. Fatima Zahra Ait Lmahjoub already had three other members of her family in hospital with COVID-19 when her 71-year-old mother fell ill.

She said it took her 12 hours to find a bed, and she had to ask at four different hospitals.

“My mother was unable to walk or breathe normally. Public hospitals didn’t even offer an ambulance and asked me to take her by taxi,” she told Reuters.

LACK OF TRUST

In Marrakech, rights activist Brahim Himmi said he had to wait nine hours to see a doctor at the Ibn Zorh hospital, where he said conditions were “filthy and crowded”.Last month, pictures shared on social media showed patients lying on the floor there, causing an outcry from rights groups in the country.

“Many people go to hospital only when their symptoms are aggravated, because they don’t trust the already frail health system,” said Himmi, who recovered from COVID-19 in August.

The hospital did not respond when called for comment.

Videos posted on social media showed poor conditions at the Ibn Baja hospital in the northern city of Taza. In one, patients complained of not seeing a doctor for over a week.

They said they were given medication including hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug which several placebo-controlled studies suggest is ineffective to either treat or prevent the disease.

In one video, a patient at the same hospital could be seen helping to install an oxygen cylinder for a young woman who was struggling to breathe, because no staff were available.

The hospital did not respond when called for comment. Reuters could not independently verify the footage.

The Health Ministry has tried to raise capacity by setting up field hospitals – tents equipped with beds and oxygen. The government has also spurred industry to manufacture equipment.

But some medics say that staff shortages are the main problem, especially in poorer, less-developed rural areas. The World Health Organization (WHO) said there was only one doctor per 4,150 people in the southeastern Daraa Tafilalet region.

It recommends a minimum of 2.4 medics per 1,000 people. Nationally, Morocco has 0.7 doctors and 1.3 nurses per thousand, it said. Last year, the health ministry said there was a shortage of 32,000 doctors and 64,000 nurses.

“Morocco needs more medical staff,” said Jamal Eddine Kohen, head of the federation of intensive care doctors.

(Reporting by Ahmed Eljechtimi, editing by Angus McDowall and Mike Collett-White)