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Frontline Health Workers Must Be a Priority in Coronavirus Response

Image courtesy of IntraHealth International

Image courtesy of IntraHealth International

As the latest number of confirmed cases in the 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) updates multiple times a day, the world holds its breath, and health workers continue to fight the outbreak on the front lines. 

“If we can’t keep our doctors and nurses safe, how can they—and we—fight dangerous pathogens and keep us all alive?” said Dr. Leana S. Wen, a physician and health workforce equity advocate, in a piece published in USA Today.

The February 7 death of 33-year-old Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor who provided an early warning on coronavirus, is a reminder of health workers’ sacrifices during an outbreak of such magnitude. 

“He didn’t want to become a hero but for those of us in 2020, he had reached the upper limit of what we can imagine a hero would do,” a citizen wrote on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, according to the New York Times.

More than 1,700 health workers had been infected by the virus and six had died as of February 11, according to the Washington Post. The statistic was released February 14 by China’s National Health Commission and represents the first data released on the state of Chinese health workers during the outbreak.

Health workers face a dire risk of contracting the virus.

On January 31, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. As the death toll continues to rise, the heroic work of health workers in China and around the world must be recognized. And they must be provided with the training, support, and supplies they need.

According to the latest situation report published by the WHO on February 17, there have been 71,429 confirmed cases globally of the virus, and 1,775 deaths.

While the vast majority of cases are in China, the virus has reached two dozen countries.

Frontline health workers’ safety is an ongoing issue in responding to the COVID-19 outbreak. Because of their close proximity to the most severe cases, health workers face a dire risk of contracting the virus. The highly contagious nature of the virus is the reason one patient was able to infect at least ten health workers and four other patients at one Wuhan hospital, according to the New York Times.

The Frontline Health Workers Coalition—for which IntraHealth International leads the secretariat—has long highlighted the urgent need for greater and more strategic investment to prepare and support the global frontline health workforce to battle infectious disease threats. And we have called for targeted investments in ensuring access to frontline health worker teams who have the capacities laid out by the International Health Regulations.

Health workers must be equipped with the information, resources, and protection they and their clients deserve. 

In order for health workers to provide the necessary care during this outbreak and other emergencies, they must be equipped with the information, resources, and protection they and their clients deserve

During the first week of the crisis, health workers from eight hospitals in the Hubei Province, where the city of Wuhan is located, put out an urgent call for medical supplies—specifically surgical masks, goggles, and gowns, according to a report by the New York Times

Because of the lack of necessary supplies and the quantity of people in need of care, Chinese health workers had been cutting plastic folders into makeshift goggles, according to New York Times reporting. 

Videos that have circulated on social media and news outlets show health workers exhausted and hysterical from working conditions, staff shortages, and long shifts. 

Health workers in China have spoken publicly about the shortage of supplies and the impact it is having on their ability to keep themselves and their clients safe.

“There are no beds, no resources,” a nurse said in an interview with CNN. “Are we supposed to just fight this battle bare-handed? Right now, loads of medical staff are at breaking point ... I see my sisters charging toward the front line and I feel so powerless.”

Their bravery and skill must be coupled with strong policies and investments.

Media reports have also stated that distraught citizens have violently struck out against health workers during the outbreak—a phenomenon we have unfortunately seen in other disease outbreaks. According to a piece published in USA Today, a person whose family member died from the virus attacked two health workers, exposing one doctor to the virus by damaging his protective mask and suit.

During a crisis, frontline health workers not only respond to the outbreak, they also provide essential health services like prenatal and postnatal care, child immunizations, noncommunicable disease screenings, HIV testing and treatment, family planning, and malaria treatment.

Health workers are the key to universal health coverage, and a country’s most valuable resource during an outbreak. 

Their bravery and skill must be coupled with policies and investments to ensure they have the information, training, and equipment they need to save lives. 

 Updated February 17, 2020

This post was originally published on IntraHealth International's VITAL blog.