Need to protect frontline health workers, caregivers

In April, doctors treating COVID-19 patients at the University of Abuja Teaching Hospital, Gwagwalada, said the Federal Government owed them allowances of about N30 million, as of then. In the same month, it was reported that 40 health workers tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Also in April, doctors at the Federal Medical Centre (FMC) in Asaba, Delta State, embarked on strike over the harassment of health workers by security agents. As if that was not enough pointer to the ugly plight of health workers, some nurses in Lagos, on May 13, also called attention to their exclusion from the state’s health insurance policy for caregivers on the frontline of COVID-19. All these have raised concerns that health workers across Nigeria are working without adequate protection and in very difficult conditions.

The protest by the nurses in Lagos State on May 13, protesting their exclusion in the provision of health insurance and the holding of some caregivers hostage at an isolation centre in Kano had again brought to the fore the need to properly take care of the health workers and their supporting caregivers in this COVID-19 era, especially those who are on the frontline of the fight against the virus.

This simply shows that health workers are in danger, working under deplorable conditions and increasingly facing harassment from security agents, despite being granted exemption from the lockdown order.

The attack on health workers taking care of coronavirus patients is becoming a dangerous trend the world over, as such, there is need for government and all stakeholders to do everything within the ambit of the law to address the issue.

This is not only because there is need to protect the caregivers, but also in order to ensure that the ‘war’ presently being waged against COVID-19 does not become a futile effort. As at the middle of May, the total number of health workers infected with coronavirus in Nigeria had reached 113, according to health minister, Dr. Osagie Ehanirein, which means that about seven per cent of the COVID-19 cases in the country composed of healthcare professionals.

As the death toll and number of infected people continue to mount across the nation, coping with the outbreak of novel coronavirus in a country of over 200 million people, where the healthcare system is overstretched is, no doubt, a great challenge to healthcare workers who are on the frontline.

There is also no doubt that many patients and their families are battling with frustrations, having allegedly gone through mental, physical and psychological tortures in the hands of some officials of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), but that should not result in attacks and physical abuse of the medical practitioners and their support staff.

There had been series of complaints against NCDC, which the leadership of the organisation and the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 had consistently promised to look into. This should suffice and there shouldn’t be any agitation despite the frustration.

However, the federal and state governments, as well as all the concerned organisations, need not be lackadaisical in the approach to safeguard these frontline workers; there is an urgent need to look into the welfare policies affecting these sets of people.

Apart from their immediate welfare, it is also imperative to quickly look into how to give these caregivers adequate protection with the provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and insurance policies that will give them confidence and sense of belonging.

It is as also important to ensure an urgent promulgation of enabling laws by the various state assemblies and the National Assembly, which would allow the health workers and their subsidiary staff to be protected against assault and other vices.

It is rather unfortunate that some nurses were left out in the provision of the insurance policy, which led to the Lagos protest. Whether they are working at isolation centres or through the back channels, they must be protected the same way their colleagues are being cared for. The way some Nigerians look down on some of these health workers, especially nurses, gives a rather sad reminder on the need to re-evaluate paper qualification.

It is more surprising that many people do not realise that nurses and medical doctors belong to entirely different professions with different purposes. Though nurses work alongside doctors and other health professionals, but they don’t really work behind them as some erroneously think.

Not all nurses work at the bedside, but they equally touch the lives of patients, just like the medical doctors. It would be a shock to people who see nurses as second fiddle to know that many nurses have doctoral degrees and they engage in the conduct of researches that advance the quality of patient care.

The role of the nurses has evolved; as such, they ought to be dignified alongside other caregivers. The authorities must ensure that health workers on the frontline have access to the protective equipment they need.

Many brave health workers have been working in difficult conditions, providing health services; as such, they face the risks of being exposed to the virus and stigmatization. There are shortages of PPE, there are dilapidated and overstretched health facilities and there is unfair remuneration and harassment by security forces. Health workers have been facing danger to secure the health and lives of people.

It is unacceptable that they continue to be put at risk. Governments at all levels must seek to guarantee their protection as they do their job.

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