Our healthcare system is in crisis – on its knees. Or so the headlines say. Patients are spending painful hours in packed Emergency Departments, the number of Category 1 cases on waiting lists has skyrocketed and paramedics are struggling to keep up with the demand. We are reminded constantly of the dangers of COVID-19, and the ever-climbing case numbers and lectured to get our jabs so we don’t ‘overload the system’.
One would think, that in a climate like this, our hospitals would be doing everything in their power to support their nurses. Or at least letting them come into work.
Gracie*, a nurse at one of Victoria’s hospitals, has been caring for patients for over ten years now. However, three weeks ago she was told she must stay home.
A perfectly healthy, competent nurse who has worked throughout the entire pandemic, has been advised that if she does not wear an N95 mask, she will not be allowed to continue in her profession. They do this completely ignoring the fact that she has a valid medical exemption granted by her doctor not to wear the vacuum-sealed mask.
‘I wear a surgical mask,’ Gracie explains, ‘but that isn’t good enough anymore, apparently. The hospital has told us that it’s all to ‘keep us safe’. I’m a carer. I love people. I want the best for people but all I see is the worst. The mask stops you from communicating. All those beautiful smiles, you can’t see them anymore or give them. All this has really frightened people.’
The recent move by her employer has been the last straw for Gracie – who does not work in a COVID-19 ward but has witnessed the reality of the virus from the inside of her own hospital since the beginning. She has chosen to come forward as a whistleblower to expose what she has seen.
‘When all this began, I was a bit concerned, like everyone else,’ she admits. ‘We were all prepared – had the PPE. But then as the weeks began to go by we had around three COVID-19 patients in any given week. They were elderly, over 70, with comorbidities.’ Gracie also shares that privately, nurses in the tea room would ask each other why Dan Andrews was locking them down over this.
In the second wave, there were a few more patients, perhaps seven each week, but again, they were of the same risk profile. ‘We had care packages being sent into the hospital, and we were being called heroes in the media, but we were a bit unsure what all the fuss was about,’ she says.
There was an accepted narrative that quickly took hold in both the hospitals and the media and nurses were encouraged to adopt that. But Gracie had her reservations. ‘To ‘do no harm’ is what you are taught and this is harming everyone. We’re locking people up for no reason. Instead of innocent until proven guilty, it’s become sick until proven well.’
When her employer decided to make the nurses wear N95 masks, Gracie sought an exemption. ‘I’m happy to wear the surgical mask, but those ones are just suffocating and they give you headaches.’
‘They’ve made it mandatory,’ Gracie says. When she presented her exemption, she was directed to a COVID-19 employee hotline and told that she is no longer welcome on the ward.
Isn’t this discrimination? The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission clearly states: “If you have a disability or medical condition that affects your ability to wear a face mask, and you have alerted your employer to this, but you face disciplinary action for not wearing a face mask, this may amount to unlawful discrimination under the Act.” The onus is on Gracie’s employer to argue that a health and safety exception applies and is justified considering the significant harm to workers.
The profession into which Gracie has invested her entire career is being ripped away from her. ‘They said I can only come back to work if I accept a clerical role. But that isn’t what I’ve been trained to do.’
For now, Gracie is left in limbo, unsure of whether she will be able to return and devastated at the potential of the loss of the job she loves. Privately, she knows of others who experience similar side-effects when forced to don the N95 masks, but who have no other choice but to continue working.
With mandatory vaccination for healthcare workers also looming on the horizon, hospitals seem poised to discard the crucial component that puts the ‘care’ into the healthcare system – its nurses.
*Real name has been withheld in order to protect her identity.
If you too are experiencing unlawful discrimination you can contact the Human Rights Commission on 1300 292 153 for more information about your rights and to learn how you can make a complaint. If you work in the healthcare system and have a story of your own to share, please contact Reignite Democracy Australia.