Health workers deserve support in COVID-19 fight

Health workers deserve support in COVID-19 fight

Health workers deserve support in COVID-19 fight
Healthcare workers get ready to treat patients at an emergency COVID-19 hospital, Jakarta, Indonesia, June 17, 2021. (Reuters)
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We have much to thank our health workers for as they battle the raging, unfamiliar and stealthy COVID-19 pandemic with heroic dedication. But accolades are not enough and the need to rethink the entire support system for health workers has never been more urgent.
The world is facing a precarious global shortage of health workers and the pandemic has further highlighted the huge repercussions of this scarcity. Health workers have had to deal with a calamitous influx of COVID-19 patients over the last two years, forcing many of them to work long hours, unvaccinated and without personal protective gear.
Various studies around the world have captured the consequences of such grim working conditions on health workers, with many suffering from fatigue, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia and depression. On top of that, the World Health Organization announced in a recently published working paper that COVID-19 may have claimed the lives of up to 180,000 health workers between January 2020 and May 2021.
These difficult working conditions are further compounded by the constant fears of health workers regarding keeping their family members safe, which is made more difficult by care duties for dependents, such as children and the elderly. More dramatically, many health workers have contracted long COVID-19, defined as experiencing virus-related symptoms for more than four weeks after the initial infection. For example, the UK Office for National Statistics’ latest survey indicated that 3 percent of health workers in the UK were suffering from long COVID-19, a figure considerably higher than other professions. No wonder the health sector is witnessing an exodus of workers.
It is widely accepted that the resilience of a population is highly dependent on the robustness of its health system. Going forward, governments have a pivotal role to play in supporting health workers in multifaceted ways to ensure they are qualified, protected and have working conditions that enable them to thrive.
First and foremost, a national health workforce planning strategy needs to be formulated to map out a number of important determinants, such as population growth, demographic changes and epidemiological forecasts. With more and more countries committing to universal health coverage for their populations, the demand for health workers will witness unprecedented growth. Policymakers must evaluate the number of health workers needed according to various specializations, qualifications and different geographical locations. It is imperative that rural communities receive a sufficient share of health workers to ensure they are well served.
Accordingly, an ambitious recruitment campaign must be deployed to encourage students to pursue careers in health. It is also important to mention that countries should strive to create local healthcare capacities to ensure a critical minimum workforce is available to handle emergencies or outbreaks. Thus, it is pivotal that investment in health professional education is strengthened, with the introduction of flexible financing solutions and scholarships for students to pursue medical careers. Continuous upskilling programs must also be provided intermittently throughout the careers of health workers, with a particular focus on managing health emergencies.
Work-life balance solutions must be incorporated into employment policies for health workers to sustain their motivation and protect their well-being. Many health workers face challenges with delivering care for their children while performing their duties at work. With schools and childcare centers forced to close during pandemic-enforced lockdowns, many parents were put in an especially precarious situation, causing burnout and stress due to juggling both duties without respite.
Progressive governments, such as those in Austria, Germany and France, sought to resolve this issue by allowing certain schools and childcare facilities to remain open for healthcare workers. For instance, during the peak of the pandemic, Ottawa offered free childcare services to essential and critical service workers at municipal childcare centers. In another example, Romania dispensed special allowances to health workers to pay childcare costs.

Many are suffering from fatigue, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia and depression.

Sara Al-Mulla

Investing in telehealth services for non-urgent care services, gender equality policies, flexible working hours and manageable workloads can also enhance work-life balance.
The physical and mental well-being of health workers must be of the utmost priority. Access to vaccines and personal protective gear is a pivotal step in protecting them. Considering the immense pressures that health workers have to contend with, it is vital that mental health programs are also deployed. Successful initiatives by various governments include establishing helplines with trained professionals offering advice, remote counseling sessions on stress management and prevention, awareness programs by psychologists at various front-line workplaces, and mindfulness sessions to boost self-care and personal resilience.
Financial assistance packages for health workers should consider special allowances for housing, work-related injuries, hardship, education and childcare. During the pandemic, for example, governments have offered health workers financial support in the form of one-time bonus payments or salary increases for the duration of the crisis. France dispensed financial bonuses of up to €1,500 ($1,690) to all health workers in public and private hospitals and in nursing homes. On a more practical level, many countries, including Poland, Malta and Romania, have funded temporary accommodation for health workers who are isolating from family members. In other cases, like Hungary and the UK, health workers were offered free access to public transport.
The provision of quality healthcare is a critical component of a nation’s well-being. Policymakers should design comprehensive and holistic strategies to support, protect and motivate health workers as they perform their noble mission.

  • Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature. She can be contacted at www.amorelicious.com.
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