The World Health Organization estimates that between 80 000 and 180 000 healthcare workers have died of Covid-19 from January 2020 to May this year but that only two in five HCWs have been fully vaccinated. It has now issued an urgent call for concrete action to better protect health- and care workers worldwide from COVID-19 and other health issues.
The WHO says the deaths have left an irreplaceable gap in the world’s pandemic response.
“We are deeply concerned about the probable number of deaths, the overall low rate of vaccinations and the vaccines inequities in low- and middle-income countries. This undermines the physical, mental, and social well-being of those individuals we depend upon to manage the pandemic,” the WHO says in a statement.
Available data from 119 countries show that there is a considerable difference in vaccination rates across regions and economic groupings. In Africa and Western Pacific regions less than one in ten healthcare workers have been fully vaccinated by September this year while 22 mostly high-income countries reported that above 80% of their personnel are fully vaccinated.
The WHO says while the reported rate of infections and deaths has reduced over time, the world cannot be complacent and that more work is needed to minimise the risk of infection in the workplace.
Health and care workers are experiencing heavy workloads and working long hours. They are exposed daily to human suffering and death. Levels of anxiety, distress, fatigue, occupational burnout, stigmatisation, physical and psychological violence have all increased significantly.
Women comprise close to 70% of health and care workers globally and represent the greater proportion of those who give direct patient care. Yet, in large numbers and proportions, female HCWs have been obliged to re-use, even to construct their own personal protective equipment, or to use ill-fitting garments designed for men.
Younger people, including medical, nursing and other students and first responders, also share the burden of care for COVID-19 patients in many countries. The pandemic exposes students to extraordinary challenges with disrupted education but also opportunities with new work responsibilities. Shortages of HCWs are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic: 66% of countries have reported health workforce shortages as the primary cause of disruption to essential health services. It is imperative that health and care workers must get adequate protection to be able to do their jobs safely. Further, they need employment opportunities, regular salaries, gender and pay equity, quality education, continuing professional development, career opportunities, social protection and effective recognition of their rights, the WHO noted.
“The world cannot recover from the COVID-19 pandemic without long-term, sustainable investments in the people who provide care to us. These investments are not only necessary, they are also common sense: with dividends accruing to national gender, health, labour and socio-economic goals,” the WHO explained.
In a statement, the Steering Committee for the International Year of Health and Care Workers in 2021, called for immediate and concrete action to protect health and care workers from the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Its recommendations include:
- Strengthening data collection and reporting on infections, ill-health and deaths among health and care workers due to COVID-19
- Protecting of HCWs during and beyond the global COVID-19 pandemic through regulatory, policy and investment decisions in keeping with the World Health Assembly’s decision on a global compact and the International Labour Organization’s call for a human-centred recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.
- Accelerating the vaccination of all healthcare workers in all countries.
“We call on political leaders and policy makers to do all within their power to urgently ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines for all healthcare workers. By the end of this International Year of Health and Care Workers, all healthcare workers, in all countries should have access to vaccines. No country should be left behind. Many healthcare workers have died – most probably more than 100 000 worldwide. Recognition and commemoration are not enough. It is our moral obligation to protect and invest in healthcare workers. And we must move forward together,” the committee concluded.