As thousands of healthcare workers worldwide have contracted severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), many due to inadequate personal protective equipment or lack of safety measure at their workplaces, they are now often perceived as public health hazards themselves. Global headlines have captured numerous stories of healthcare personnel facing attacks while attempting to carry out their normal duties.
In Mexico, nurses and doctors have been beaten and pelted with eggs. In the Philippines, a nurse had bleach thrown on his face which affected his vision. In India, healthcare workers have been physically assaulted, stoned, spat on, and evicted from their homes. These are just a few examples and there are many more from other countries including the USA and Australia where these individuals have been abused, threatened, and discriminated against.
Several medical and humanitarian organisations—including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Hospital Federation, and the World Medical Association— recently issued a declaration denouncing over 200 incidents of COVID-19 related attacks on healthcare workers and health facilities worldwide during the pandemic.
Is this the cost that healthcare professionals must endure for being on the frontlines for their countries in the battle against coronavirus? Is this the price they must pay for safeguarding our health? Other than of course, paying with their lives, as many have already done.
Yet shocking cases continue to emerge as there is now an increase in threats and aggression to health personnel worldwide. What makes this especially distressing is that these are the very same healthcare workers who are responding to an unprecedented crisis that is deeply affecting all aspects of society. They are risking their own lives daily by caring for COVID-19 patients or keeping other much needed health services alive and running.
There is currently no systematic global tracking of how many health and essential workers have died after contracting COVID-19. However, Amnesty International has collated and analysed a wide range of available data that shows that over 3000 health workers are known to have died after contracting COVID-19 in 79 countries around the world.
With the number of COVID-19 cases steadily increasing in Trinidad and Tobago, it was only a matter of time before the disease affected the medical staff in our hospitals.
But how utterly distressing to hear that recent reports of a senior consultant colleague in Trinidad who contracted COVID-19 were instantly met with accusations of deliberately continuing to work and exposing others. Not to mention social media posts demanding revoking of his medical license.
Do we really think that any healthcare professional in this country after finding out that they are COVID-positive would knowingly put others at risk? This idea is as absurd as it deeply concerning.
When we start thinking of the ones who are caring for us as the enemy, then we run the risk of falling into the trap of discrimination and victimisation. Not to mention, this type of response only serves to worsen the exceptional COVID-19 related stress and burnout that many health care workers are already experiencing.
What propels this even further is the fear, panic and misinformation that has been widely circulated during the pandemic so far. Conspiracy theories and COVID-myths not only aggravate a regional mistrust of healthcare workers and institutions but are ultimately dangerous.
I can only hope that the negative remarks of a few are not reflective of the wider community which is supportive and encouraging. It is easily conceivable that any of my colleagues or even myself, may be the next doctor diagnosed with COVID-19 as we all continue to work each day and exercise our duty to care.
In the end, stigmatisation and discrimination against healthcare workers have no place in our society. As the pandemic continues to challenge the health-care system of many countries worldwide, attacks on their staff, whether physical or mental, are attacks on all of us.
We all depend on the health and well-being of these workers so that they can continue to provide care to ourselves, our families, and our communities, with or without COVID-19.