Now that the pandemic is back we’re looking at the usual numbers again. In the hospitals there is a shortfall of 30 to 40% in the number of nurses and doctors. The intensive care units already planned need nine thousand new staff members.  In order to deal with the emergency they are recalling retired doctors. Or trying to fill the gaps with medical military personnel, or even with nurses and doctors who have just graduated and are sent to the front lines without appropriate training.  But in Italy there are 77,000 trained staff of foreign origin who are not used because they do not have citizenship, a basic requirement for work in the public sector. “It is an enormous waste of resources which is completely senseless at a time like this. Among us there are people with high levels of professionalism, who simply can’t be compared with new graduates. It can’t be a passport that makes the difference.  Don’t make us think that we are doing the wrong job in the wrong country”, says Merhy Valijho bitterly, an Iranian who is in charge of coordinating the nurses in Amsi, the Association of doctors of foreign origin in Italy.

When did you arrive in Italy, Merhy Valijho?

“I’ve been in Italy since 1991. In 1984 I got my degree in Nursing in Teheran. I worked as a head nurse and coordinator of the Gynaecology department in Teheran hospital. I got a second degree in Obstetrics. When I arrived here I spent the first three months doing a language course.  To make a living I worked privately as a carer, while I waited for my degree certificate to be recognised”.

Where do you work now?

“I am a head nurse in the Geriatrics department in Santa Lucia hospital in Rome”.

One of the sectors that has been worst hit by Covid.

Yes, the situation is very complicated. We are in the ward for eight hours non stop without ever taking off our masks. Our patients’ relatives are no longer allowed into the hospital. They stay in touch with their loved ones by video call

“Some of them, who have cognitive deficit, don’t even recognise the voices. When visits were allowed again after the last lockdown, one patient had a heart attack because the emotion of seeing her loved ones again was so strong”.

You are under incredible stress. And that’s not counting the departments that are not fully staffed like intensive care…

“Yes, but it’s not true that there aren’t enough doctors and nurses. There are, but the foreign ones are not taken into consideration. There are nurses who work through the cooperatives, who earn €7 or maximum €8 euro an hour. Doctors not much more, €10. Many prefer to go and work as carers, where they are paid a minimum of €12 an hour. Even I who have more than 30 years’ experience only earn €1500 a month.  We are not taken into consideration at all”.

Not just “heroes”, as they described you.

I don’t have Italian citizenship, I have a permanent residence card which allows me to work. Is that why I am paid less than Italians?


And as a “foreigner”, you can’t work in public establishments…

“Exactly. We can only work in private hospitals. It’s not right that a passport is more important than professional experience gained in the field. They preferred to send in new graduates with no experience at all. They don’t know anything and can put patients’ lives at risk. This isn’t a job where you can improvise and it’s enough to have a diploma. Lots of us have a lot of experience at every level, which we acquired in our countries of origin, or here, often for years, in private establishments. Not making use of us in a moment of great difficulty for the public health service, just because we don’t have an Italian name or identity card is a tragic error that will cost Italy dearly”.

Translated by Anne Parry