The relentless ebb and flow of Covid-19 waves across the world have seen vocal campaigns for vaccines, game-changer therapies, ventilators, masks and so on.

But there’s another crisis coming down the tracks, and that is a shortage of healthcare workers, said Annette Kennedy, making an impassioned plea for governments to pay attention and protect healthcare workers. Kennedy is President of the International Council of Nurses, but was speaking for the larger community of healthcare workers across the world.

This community has given “their all” for about two years, she said at a recent World Health Organization (WHO) interaction, pointing to the long work hours of healthcare workers, often without breaks, being called to duty without protective equipment and support. They are burnt out, devastated and “physically and mentally exhausted”, she said, adding, that 10 per cent of them are predicted to leave in a short time.

In fact, she points out, the world was already short of six million nurses, when confronted by the pandemic. In North America and Europe, another 4.7 million were to retire. Add to that, estimates of another 10 per cent predicted to leave, she said, it meant a wipe-out of about 50 per cent of the healthcare force.

This development comes against the backdrop of a new WHO working paper, that a staggering 1,15,000-plus healthcare workers may have died from Covid-19, between January 2020 and May this year. And making a bad situation worse, in certain low- and middle-income countries, healthcare workers had not been vaccinated, even as they are expected to protect the sick.

In India, close to 1,500 doctors are reported to have lost their life during the pandemic period, according to the Indian Medical Association. And there’s little information available on para-medical staff, and other healthcare and support staff. Over the last 23 months, there have been several instances of nurses seeking restoration or better wages and improved working conditions, something that should have been a given – especially given the added pressure of providing care during a pandemic.

It becomes that much more worrying when it comes to ASHA workers, the informal group who take the government’s health and nutritional messages and initiatives to rural and interior parts of India. Unfortunately though, these women footsoldiers too are constantly seeking better remuneration, a more steady nature to their job-profile and better working conditions and protection.

A look around the world, and similar reports reveal protests by nurses and other healthcare staff, even from developed economies, seeking better wages and protection. In fact, it’s quite telling that healthcare workers across the world call for tangible actions to protect them, rather than just words and gestures of appreciation.

Better reporting

The WHO calls for high-quality recording and reporting of infections and deaths among healthcare workers to help put in protective measures, besides investments towards integrating occupational data in death certification and surveillance reporting. Against the pandemic backdrop, it also called for the vaccination of all health workers, as evidence suggested that deaths in this community was greater than was officially reported.

In fact, the inequities in global vaccine distribution show up here too. Data from 119 countries suggested that on average, two in five health and care workers were fully vaccinated. However, in Africa, less than 1 in 10 health workers had been fully vaccinated, compared to most high-income countries, where more than 80 per cent of this community were fully vaccinated, said WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Trail of sorrow

The scale of the problem is different in different countries. But when it comes to the trail of sorrow left behind by the death of a health care worker – it is tragically similar across regions. And the ask of governments on this count, is the same.

Nurses have left orphaned children and family members, without compensation, says Kennedy, giving a global picture. In India, the IMA echoes a similar sentiment for the families left behind by doctors who lost their lives during the pandemic.

“If you were to see a plane crash every day for a week...... the world would investigate it. Yet there’s no investigation into the 1,15,000 workers who have died. Are we not valuable?” asks Kennedy.

Now that’s a question that should seriously worry policy makers and ordinary folk alike, because no healthcare system can survive if the people who make it tick are not cared for.