Calls have been made for governments to address their “collective failure” to prioritise nurses during the coronavirus pandemic, as a new report reveals a “disturbing snapshot” of how health workers are being exposed to the virus and its associated risks.
In a new report published today, the International Council of Nurses revealed that, as of 14 August, more than 1,000 nurses had died with coronavirus across 44 countries – though this figure is believed to be significantly underestimated.
“ICN’s latest survey is a disturbing snapshot of how nurses and other health workers are still being exposed to Covid-19”
The nine-page document is based on the responses of a survey of 52 of the ICN’s national nursing associations between 30 July and 14 August. The global body is a federation of more than 130 national nurses associations.
The ICN has said the findings from the report showed the failure of governments across the globe in prioritising nurses and healthcare workers during the pandemic.
On average, the report said that 10% of all confirmed cases of coronavirus across the globe were among nurses and healthcare workers and that 1,097 nurses had died in 44 countries.
However, the ICN reiterated that healthcare worker infections and deaths were still not being recorded systematically throughout the world.
In addition, the report found only 16 out of 33 national nursing associations that responded to the survey stated that Covid-19 was recognised as an occupational disease for healthcare workers.
Access to staff entitlements and compensations due to coronavirus are “highly linked to whether the virus is classified as an occupation disease”, noted the report.
It added that 77% of countries that did recognise the disease in this way provided compensation to health staff who contracted the disease at work.
As a result, the ICN has now recommended that Covid-19 exposure in the workplace be recognised as an occupational illness and that those infected at work should be entitled to “compensation, curative services and rehabilitation”.
In April, it was announced that families of health and social care professionals in the UK who died from Covid-19 in the line of duty would receive a £60,000 payment from the government.
Other findings showed that 24 out of 33 associations had received reports of incidents of violence or discrimination against frontline health workers due to Covid-19.
Incidents cited in the report included verbal aggression, physical assaults and psychological harm. Meanwhile, there were some cases where nurses had been “refused housing rentals or have been turned out on the street”, noted the report.
Early on in the pandemic Nursing Times reported the emergence of nurses facing verbal and physical abuse by the public, including being spat at and labelled “disease spreaders” in the UK.
At the time, leaders of the profession had spoken out against the harassment and urged people to “be kind” to frontline professionals at a time of international crisis.
Meanwhile, 20 out of 33 nursing associations had sometimes or regularly received reports of mental health distress from nurses during the coronavirus response.
“Burnout, anxiety, depression and fear of stigma and discrimination” were among the most common mental health issues reported.
Off the back of this, the survey found 25 out of 33 nursing associations reported there was psychological support available for nurses during the pandemic.
In April, Nursing Times launched its campaign Covid-19: Are you OK? to highlight the mental health pressures and needs of nurses during and after the coronavirus pandemic.
Other findings in the ICN report found 15 of 33 national nursing associations faced “moderate to severe” shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) in long-term care facilities in their countries.
Results show that the “supply of adequate PPE in acute hospital settings might have improved, but it is still a serious problem in long-term care facilities in some countries”, the ICN noted.
In addition, the report flagged that in “most countries” routine testing of health workers was not implemented.
Though, 24 out of 30 associations said guidelines and recommendations for health staff testing for coronavirus were available in their countries.
“By not collecting data on deaths and infections or recognising Covid-19 as an occupational disease, governments are effectively looking the other way”
As part of its new report, the ICN has outlined a list of recommendations for governments to take on board.
These included a repeated call for the implementation of standardised data collection on healthcare worker infections and deaths involving Covid-19.
It has also urged countries to commit to a “zero-tolerance” approach to violence and discrimination against nurses and healthcare workers.
The ICN added that health staff should be prioritised for Covid-19 vaccines and that more needed to be done to ensure sufficient provision of PPE.
Measures to provide mental health support and counselling resources to nurses should also be scaled up, noted the report.
ICN president Annette Kennedy said: “This latest survey is a disturbing snapshot of how nurses and other health workers are still being exposed to Covid-19 and all its associated risks, including violence and prejudice, mental illness, infection and in what we now believe to be possibly thousands of cases, making the ultimate sacrifice by paying with their lives.
“We talk about the new norm created by the pandemic, but it has also confirmed some long-understood truths in the nursing community, that nurses are undervalued, underpaid and sometimes treated as expendable.”
She said this was a “scandalous situation which ICN urges governments to rectify”.
Meanwhile, ICN chief executive Howard Catton said the findings of the report “add to a growing list of failures by governments to act to protect nurses and other health workers during the pandemic”.
“By not collecting data on deaths and infections or recognising Covid-19 as an occupational disease, governments are effectively looking the other way.
“The consequence is that staff are left without equipment, training, testing, mental health or financial support.”
He stressed that by putting staff at risk worldwide governments were also putting patients at risk too.
“The simple and undeniable truth is that health workforce safety and patient safety are two sides of the same coin, you cannot have one without the other,” added Mr Catton.
The ICN chief executive also commented on the psychological pressures nurses were facing as highlighted by the survey.
“There is a huge hidden mental health risk to our nursing workforce submerged below the surface of the pandemic,” said Mr Catton.
“ICN research indicates the real scale of the mental health legacy of Covid-19 will undoubtedly mean that sickness, absenteeism, burnout and nurses leaving the profession because of ill health will increase, making shortages even more severe and resulting in an unquantifiable loss of experience.”
Nursing Times has contacted the Department of Health and Social Care for a response to the ICN’s comments.