Caring for healthcare workers must be a priority

Healthcare workers have been the backbone we have all relied on through the global Covid-19 pandemic. As we just move out of the fourth wave, we need to show them they can rely on us too.

Aptly, the World Health Organisation named 2021 the Year of Health and Care Workers. But at the end of the second year of the pandemic, this acknowledgement and appreciation has brought no improvements in the lives of healthcare workers. Far from it. We are seeing more unemployment, increasingly stressful work environments and worsening mental health for those keeping us safe and healthy. With the pandemic raging on, the government must stop funding cuts and the diversion of funding.

In South Africa, deep funding cuts mean that in one province alone, thousands of community healthcare workers are facing unemployment, and 288 young doctors have been left unplaced. This is a global phenomenon. Data from the United States reported as many as 11 600 healthcare related job losses in February 2021. And even where budgets remain intact, the mental health of carers is dangerously neglected.

During our first two waves, South African healthcare workers moved from their existing jobs to support the Covid-19 response. As each wave subsides, these workers face unemployment or long stints of searching for a new placement.

Working in the South African healthcare system, I was inundated by messages from nurses when the field hospitals closed after the first wave of Covid-19. They knew me as a public health practitioner and activist and, having lost their livelihoods, they were looking for support. Their sense of helplessness was overwhelming. These nurses were looking for new jobs, had bills to pay, needed to eat and provide for families, but were now left destitute and anxious. Many were forced to take more junior or lower-paid jobs than they had before the pandemic, and to deal with continuing job insecurity that only amplified the mental health consequences of working on the frontlines.

In a recent Tekano webinar, junior doctors spoke of their mental health issues linked to long working hours and lack of debriefing sessions. This crisis is not limited to South Africa. There have been global reports of healthcare workers being perceived as responsible for transmission rates. Despite their work supporting important track and trace initiatives, they faced aggression and disrespect in their own communities.  

We cannot afford to wait and watch as the trauma of Covid-19 plays out. These compounding factors might not be immediately visible but mental health issues and low morale among healthcare workers will start disrupting services and negatively affect the quality of care being provided. Without action and investment, this is a recipe for disaster amidst the fourth wave.

Many may say that the challenges of working on the front line are merely part of the job description. Of course, healthcare workers are well aware of the dangers and difficulties they sign up for and show up daily because of their personal commitment to serve. But this does not justify putting them at unnecessary risk. Also, their health and safety is intrinsically linked to our own.

Voters must elect leaders who ensure job security and make the big decisions to ring-fence funding to protect their roles. The establishment and maintenance of support services for healthcare workers and creating true stability in the sector is crucial to ensuring good mental health outcomes. Healthcare workers should be adequately and appropriately recognised for their contribution with more than empty accolades.

Healthy frontline workers equate to a healthy society. It is our role to ensure that those who carried us through the pandemic are cared for beyond the peaks of Covid-19. We must ensure that we prioritise their mental health, as they recover from the front lines of a pandemic that devastated their lives too.

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Rene Sparks
Rene Sparks is a senior Atlantic Fellow based at Tekano Health Equity in South Africa, an executive member of the Public Health Association of South Africa and an Aspen New Voices Fellow. Sparks is a nurse who, having grown up in a disadvantaged community in South Africa, is now committed to equity, justice and access in health systems and improving the quality of healthcare for all

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