“[…] because it is just as much as I can do to get thro’ my daily work which is very heavy. I have been so ill.” As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the world, these words, written in 1888 by Florence Nightingale - the founder of modern nursing - are today more relevant than ever. How many nurses and other healthcare professionals are at that stage today, and how many will be in the coming months? How can they fulfil their mission of protecting the public if they are increasingly getting sick themselves? And how can we prevent them becoming ill?
Healthcare professionals are the engine of our overall response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is thus extremely worrying to see the statistics: in Italy, one in 10 of confirmed COVID-19 cases are healthcare workers; in Spain, this number reaches 13.6 per cent; and in the United Kingdom, one in four doctors, and one in five nurses are either ill or self-isolating. Similar or even worse pictures are emerging in other countries around the world. Lack of protective equipment, inadequate testing, inefficient distribution networks and communication breakdowns partly explain these high figures.
One should not underestimate, either, the impact of COVID-19 on the psychological well-being of those who have to fight this pandemic on the medical frontlines. Not only do they have to face huge pressure and exhausting shifts, but they have to consider the health of their own families as well as their patients.
Let us put ourselves behind their protective masks for a moment, and consider their constant fear of contaminating others, whether this be loved ones, patients or colleagues. This situation is so difficult that many healthcare workers have had to deprive themselves of the presence and warmth of their families by choosing to live in isolation, so as to protect them from possible infection.
We all know that without healthcare workers, there would be no COVID-19 response at all. But for any response to be effective, it needs to have the necessary resources and support. This is why on this World Health Day, I have chosen to call on all our countries to do everything in their power to ensure that the protection of the health, safety and psychological well-being of healthcare workers be made a top priority in the current response to COVID-19.
At the same time, I appeal to all our 830 million European citizens to show – in every possible way – support, encouragement and appreciation to the millions of medical workers on the frontline of this crisis. Even small gestures, such as clapping hands outside our front doors and on our balconies, or writing a message of support to healthcare workers living close to us, can make an impact. Let us unite in an effort to recognise and better protect those who protect us!
One day all of this will be over, and we will reunite again. As Florence Nightingale said at the end of her letter: “But you shall run up some fine day from Louise and sleep here. We will settle this time.”