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As Iveta Žáková talks about her job as a carer during the Covid-19 pandemic, she suddenly bursts into tears.
Her voice breaking, she recalls the day an old lady at the care facility she works at turned 100.
“There was a celebration and a cake, but her family couldn’t hug her and just stood by the door, looking at each other and weeping,” she says over the phone.
For years, Žáková, 54, from Bytča, in the Žilina Region, worked as an accountant. Overwhelmed by the mass of paperwork she had to deal with, her health began to suffer, so she retrained and began doing care work part-time.
She later gave up her office job completely and, in 2018, went to work at a care facility in Horné Sŕnie in the Trenčín Region. Established by local authorities, it is home to 37 elderly people and people with dementia. She continues to work there today.
When the pandemic hit Slovakia two years ago, care home residents in the country suddenly became isolated from the outside world.
“It broke my heart to see all our clients, who I consider my friends, being alone, especially during the first Christmas of the pandemic,” Žáková says.
Covid swept through the facility in spring 2021, a few months after the start of the vaccine rollout. Five care home residents died.
“Most employees got Covid even though we were wearing protective overalls,” said the carer. Her partner and son contracted the virus from her too.
At the facility, clients are today vaccinated, as are half of the staff.
I would not hold out much hope that foreigners will come in to replace Slovak carers.„
But Žáková is not one of them. Like many other people in Slovakia – the country’s vaccination rate is currently around 50 percent – she has not had the jab.
She says that she is sceptical of the vaccines, but may change her mind later after more studies are done on them.
For now, she would rather rely on her body’s immune system to fight the virus, she explains.
There are eight carers and four nurses at the care home, and when the pandemic began they often had to cover each other’s shifts as colleagues became infected. “We even had to stand in for cleaning ladies. We did everything,” Žáková says.
But not all of the extra hours she did, which at one point totalled more than 100, have been paid, she claims. However, last year, her colleagues and she at least received promised “pandemic” bonuses from the state totalling more than € 1,000.
Žáková is aware that there are serious problems facing the care sector, in particular the issue of low pay. But she says despite this, the job of caring for people who need help gives her a sense of fulfilment, the same sense she has when she tends to her flowers and garden in her spare time.
“I hope I will keep doing it until I retire,” she says.
But her enthusiastic approach to her work and her positive experience of it appear to be far from common among other carers.
People joined in public displays of support for carers, including clapping, at the start of the pandemic. But officials at the Chamber of Carers, a civic association representing carers, feel that today there is little public support or sympathy for carers, despite them being on the frontline of the pandemic for the past two years.
People tend to talk about carers only when there is a scandal about the abuse or neglect of people in facilities, the Chamber’s head, Dana Grafiková, said.
“They condemn us [carers] most times, although it is often not the fault of carers but founders [of care facilities] who fail to recruit more staff,” she explained.
Reading posts in carers’ Facebook groups, a sense of frustration among them comes through.
Furthermore, Grafiková, who has worked as a carer for 35 years, believes many Slovaks wrongly think that anyone can become a carer, and that carers only “wipe people’s bottoms” and are uneducated.
The President of the Association of Recipients of Social Services, Silvester Obuch, labelled carers “slowcoach women with minimum education” in a Facebook post last year.
“The pandemic has not changed anything. It has only exacerbated existing problems, as there are fewer and fewer staff and the workload is increasing,” Grafiková said. Carers have been put under unbearable strain, have been subject to verbal attacks by clients’ families, and their health has suffered, she continued.
This has forced many to quit, and it is expected many more will retire in the next few years.
An average carer, most of whom are women, in Slovakia is in their fifties or older. The Chamber of Carers warns the whole sector will fall apart in six years because the job is unattractive for younger women.
“I would not hold out much hope that foreigners will come in to replace Slovak carers,” Grafiková noted.
In 2020, 7,483 carers – down 293 on the year before - worked in the sector, 77 percent of whom worked for facilities run and financed by municipalities, according to data from the Labour Ministry. A new IT system, which the ministry plans to launch by April 2022, should provide more detailed information on carers.
Our clients thank us for what we do for them, and that is the best thing about this job.„
Carers say what has long upset them most is their low salaries, which they feel do not reflect their workload, especially in care homes. The gross monthly salary for a carer is between €664 and €1,060, depending on the region in which they work, according to Platy.sk, a salary comparison website.
In Slovakia, the provision and funding of social services is in the hands of municipalities and self-governing regions. Private providers can also receive funds from local authorities if they run their facilities on a non-profit basis.
The state supports social services, including care services, using EU funds and domestic grants which public and private providers can apply for.
“Today, public and private providers of care services are receiving the highest amount of funding in history,” the Labour Ministry told The Slovak Spectator, noting that care service providers have been given almost €150 million since 2015.
It added that about 30,000 people working in social services have received or are about to receive bonuses totalling €57 million for their work during the pandemic.
Despite this funding, the situation in the sector has not got much better, according to Grafiková.
“The only thing that has improved is the provision of personal protective equipment,” Grafiková said.
Carers are not nurses, she also stressed, pointing out that carers have for some time complained that they are often forced into performing tasks, such as giving medicines, insulin injections and measuring clients’ blood sugar levels, which nurses should be doing.
“They must do some things, against the law, because of a shortage of nurses,” she said.
And she highlights how hard the work of carers is, recalling how a colleague once calculated how much weight they lifted – helping clients stand up or carrying them – on a single 12-hour shift.
“It was about seven tonnes,” she said.
Despite the problems Žáková and other carers continue to face, she and many other carers say looking after their clients always comes ahead of anything else.
“Our clients thank us for what we do for them, and that is the best thing about this job,” she says.
The Spectator College is a programme designed to support the study and teaching of English in Slovakia, as well as to inspire interest in important public issues among young people.