BY Phyllis Mbanje

THE World Health Organisation (WHO) has made a clarion call on governments and healthcare leaders to prioritise the safety of workers and patients.Healthcare workers have been the most affected by the global COVID-19 pandemic and in Zimbabwe, over 400 health workers have been infected with the virus, a situation which forced nurses and doctors to down tools demanding personal protective clothing (PPE).

Speaking during the commemoration of World Patient Safety Day, celebrated annually on September 17, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the governments had legal and moral responsibilities to keep health workers and patients safe.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded all of us of the vital role health workers play to relieve suffering and save lives,” he said.

WHO took the opportunity to launch the health worker safety charter which compels governments and institutions running healthcare services at local level to take positive actions to protect health workers.

These include steps to protect health workers from violence; improve their mental health; protect them from physical and biological hazards, advance national programmes for health worker safety as well as connecting them to existing patient safety policies.

“This is a step towards ensuring that health workers have safe working the conditions, the training, the pay and the respect they deserve,” Ghebreyesus said.

The pandemic has also highlighted the extent to which protecting health workers is key to ensuring a functioning health system and a functioning society. COVID-19 has exposed healthcare workers and their families to unprecedented levels of risk. Although not representative, data from many countries across WHO regions indicate that COVID-19 infections among health workers are far greater than those in the general population.

While health workers represent less than 3% of the population in the majority of countries and less than 2% in almost all low- and middle-income countries, around 14% of COVID-19 cases reported to WHO are among health workers.

However, data availability and quality are limited, and it is not possible to establish whether health workers were infected in the workplace or in community settings. Thousands of health workers infected with COVID-19 have lost their lives worldwide.

In addition to physical risks, the pandemic has placed extraordinary levels of psychological stress on health workers exposed to high-risk settings for long hours, living in constant fear of disease exposure while separated from family. They also face social stigmatisation.

Before COVID-19 hit, medical professionals were already at higher risk of suicide in all parts of the world. A recent review of healthcare professionals found that one in four reported depression and anxiety and one in three suffered insomnia during COVID-19.

WHO recently highlighted an alarming rise in reports of verbal harassment, discrimination and physical violence among health workers in the wake of COVID-19.In Zimbabwe, there are widespread reports that health workers are being thrown out by panicky landlords who fear being exposed to
COVID-19.

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