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Covid-19: Health workers are the frontline soldiers, protect them

Wednesday March 25 2020


A group of nurses wearing protective mask and gear pose for a group photo prior to their night shift on March 13, 2020 at the Cremona hospital, southeast of Milan, Lombardy, during the country's lockdown aimed at stopping the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. PHOTO | PAOLO MIRANDA | AFP 

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Many soldiers have seen first-hand the horrors of war and, terrifying as it often was, knew whom they were fighting and could recognise their enemy.

But in the new coronavirus, we have an invisible deadly enemy.

About a century ago, the Spanish flu pandemic killed an estimated 50 million people, more than the combined casualties of World Wars I and II.

Our understanding of disease transmission and treatments is far ahead of our position in 1918, but Covid-19 has shown our limits of dealing with outbreaks.

Advice to protect ourselves is clear: wash your hands well and often, self-isolate if you feel unwell, maintain social distance, avoid crowded places and, if symptoms worsen, seek medical attention.

Only by following this advice rigorously can we hope to stem the tide of new infections.



The virus is spreading and, on the frontline between a nervous public and those directing national responses, healthcare workers, on whom we all depend, can easily be forgotten.

During the Ebola outbreak six years ago, the World Health Organisation estimated that health workers were between 21 and 32 times more likely to be infected than other adults.

In West Africa, more than 350 health workers died from Ebola.

Doctors, nurses, caregivers and paramedics are facing an unprecedented workload in overstretched health facilities with no end in sight.

They are working in stressful and frightening work environments: in most settings, they are under-protected, overworked and vulnerable to infection.

The risk to doctors, nurses and others on the frontline has become plain: in Italy, coronavirus has killed at least 18 doctors.

Spain reported that more than 3,900 healthcare workers have become infected.


We need a whole-of-society resolve that we will not let our frontline soldiers become patients.

We must do everything to support health workers, who, despite their well-founded fears, are stepping into Covid-19’s path to aid the afflicted and help to halt the spread of the virus.

In sub-Saharan Africa, as elsewhere, pressure on the healthcare workforce will intensify in the coming months.

A recent survey of National Nurses United (NNU) members in the US revealed that only 30 per cent believed their healthcare organisation had sufficient inventory of personal protective equipment (PPE) for responding to a surge event.

In some parts of France and Italy, hospitals have run out of masks, forcing doctors to examine and treat coronavirus patients without adequate protection.

The situation in poorer countries will be worse. Demand has far outstripped supplies.


In Kenya, we will dedicate resources to providing gowns, gloves and medical grade face masks to health workers, and also arm them with the latest knowledge and information on the virus.

The government, the United Nations and the international community are determined to explore every avenue to ensure all the possible support for them.

Coronavirus can survive on some hard surfaces for up to three days, but it is also easily killed by simple disinfectants.

Health workers need the back-up of ancillary staff to increase the frequency and rigour of cleaning light switches, countertops, handrails, elevator buttons and doorknobs.

That can give reassurance to caregivers and protect the public too. Health workers also face considerable mental stress.

It is often forgotten that, as humans, they feel the sorrow of loss when their patients succumb to the virus.

They, too, have families, and so will also naturally be fearful that the virus might reach their loved ones.

Whenever possible, we will ensure that they have access to counselling services so they can recharge before moving on.


We need to also use accurate information as a means of defence.

Misinformation can cause public panic, suspicion and unrest; it can disrupt the availability of food and vital supplies and divert resources — such as face masks — away from health workers and other frontline workers, who need them most.

Covid-19 will not be the last dangerous microbe we see. The heroism, dedication and selflessness of medical staff allow the rest of us a degree of reassurance that we will overcome this virus.

We must give health workers all the support they need to do their job, be safe and stay alive. We will need them when the next pandemic strikes.

Mr Kagwe is the Cabinet Secretary for Health; Mr Chatterjee is the United Nations Resident Coordinator to Kenya.