By Ifeanyi Nsofor
ABUJA, Jul 8 2020 (IPS)
Recently, Barcelona’s Liceu opera opened its 2020-2021 season by serenading a full house of plants with classical music. The plants will then be given to over 2,200 health workers who serve at the frontlines to battle the pandemic. The performance was both an appreciation for the workers and it also celebrated the return to normalcy following the devastations caused by COVID-19.
It is commendable that health workers are being celebrated this way. However, from the beginning of this pandemic, health workers have been victims. For instance, Li Wenliang, who first raised an alarm about a serious infectious disease in Wuhan, China was hounded by Chinese authorities for inciting fear. This caused a delay in China accepting and reporting the occurrence of a new deadly disease.
In the heat of the pandemic, NHS workers wore bin bags as protection. Shockingly, personal protective equipment were fashioned out of clinical waste bags, plastic aprons and borrowed skiing goggles
Consequently, there are currently more than 9 million cases of COVID-19, above 5 million recoveries and almost 500,000 deaths globally. Unfortunately, Li Wenliang caught the virus and died from COVID-19.
All over the world, health workers continue to suffer a great deal during this pandemic. This is shocking because health workers save lives. In the U.S., more than 400 health workers have died from COVID-19, according to the Centres for Disease Control.
In the United Kingdom, more than 200 health workers have died from COVID-19. Sixty percent of the U.K. deaths are among Black, Asian, and minority ethnic groups. In Nigeria, over 800 health workers have been infected with COVID-19 and 10 doctors have died. This led to Nigerian doctors embarking on a national strike recently. These deaths are attributed to lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for health workers.
As cities begin to reopen globally, the world must reflect on this pandemic and how it has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, including health workers.
These three lessons, which ensure safety of health workers should guide preparedness for the next infectious disease outbreak.
First, Infection, prevention and control protocols must be put in place in all health facilities and should be strictly adhered to. Infection, prevention and control measures include provision of clean running water, availability of soaps in health facilities and provision of personal protective equipment for health workers.
As common as these seem, they are not available in most health facilities in both low- and middle-income countries and high-income countries. A World Health Organization report on water, sanitation and hygiene from 54 low- and middle-income countries, shows that 38% lack access to even basic levels of water, 19% lack sanitation and 35% do not have water and soap for handwashing.
High-income countries have not done well with regards to infection, prevention and control during this pandemic. Reports from the United Kingdom revealed that in the heat of the pandemic, NHS workers wore bin bags as protection. Shockingly, personal protective equipment were fashioned out of clinical waste bags, plastic aprons and borrowed skiing goggles.
Second, improve salaries and conditions of service for health workers everywhere, especially in developing countries. These are ways to show health workers that they are appreciated. Poor salaries and poor conditions of service are major reasons for emigration of health workers from low to high income countries.
A 2017 study on emigration of Nigerian doctors conducted by Nigeria Health Watch and NOI Polls explored reasons for emigration. More than 700 medical doctors were interviewed. The result revealed that improved remuneration (18%), upgrade of all hospital facilities and equipment (16%), increased healthcare funding (13%), and improved working conditions for health workers as major reasons for reducing emigration of doctors.
Furthermore, it is mind-boggling that medical doctors in Nigeria are paid a monthly hazard allowance of less than $13. If this poor remuneration continues, emigration would persist and will adversely affect response to pandemics in poor countries.
Third, build regional coalitions for epidemic preparedness because epidemics will always happen. One lesson from COVID-19 is that epidemics do not respect borders and therefore, no country is safe as far as one country is at risk of epidemics. Going forward, countries should no longer operate in silos.
The African continent is leading in this regard through the Africa Medical Supplies Platform. This is an African Union initiative which enables African governments to join forces in bulk buying and transportation of COVID-19 commodities.
This would help countries procure and supply infection, prevention and control commodities needed by health workers, such as personal protective equipment and sanitizers. Furthermore, this should be taken to scale to cover other healthcare needs necessary to make health facilities safer for health workers in the post-COVID-19 period.
Pulling forces together is an important way to ensure sustainable funding for epidemic preparedness and protect health workers.
It is gratifying that all the plants serenaded with classical music by the Barcelona Opera will be donated to 2,292 health workers at the Hospital Clínic of Barcelona.
When health workers are appreciated, properly salaried and protected, the world would be healthier and safer.
Dr. Ifeanyi M. Nsofor, is a medical doctor, a graduate of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, the CEO of EpiAFRIC and Director of Policy and Advocacy at Nigeria Health Watch. He is a Senior Atlantic Fellow for Health Equity at George Washington University, a Senior New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute and a 2006 International Ford Fellow.
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