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International Workers' Memorial Day: Healthcare Workers and COVID-19

Wreaths being laid at International Workers Memorial Day

Wreaths being laid at International Workers Memorial Day

“At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw a massive uptick in members using our free legal service to update their wills,” says Madeleine Harradence, ANMF Victoria Assistant Secretary. It’s a bleak but timely reminder that many nurses and midwives thought about the prospect of dying from contracting COVID-19. It’s not hard to imagine why. 

Australia recorded one death of a healthcare worker as a result of COVID-19 infection: a disability nurse in Victoria. This tragedy will be counted on International Workers’ Memorial Day next week among all workers killed as a result of workplace incidents or occupational diseases in the last year. 

By contrast, and with emphasis on International Workers’ Memorial Day, 3,607 healthcare workers died of COVID-19 in the United States. These are only the ones that have been investigated and confirmed: there are likely many more. 

“2020 has given OHS a whole different meaning,” says Madeleine. “Things that we’ve always  talked about - like systems of work, rosters, PPE, workloads, workplace layout - came into the spotlight during the pandemic. We all learned a lot about a whole-of-workplace approach, not just making sure you wash your hands.”

The Healthcare System(s)

“It isn’t comparing apples and apples,” says Madeleine. “There’s an experience in hospitals that is different to aged care. And there’s a further difference in private aged care compared with public aged care. The state runs the public aged care system and the feds run the private system, and they just don’t have a handle on risk controls in private aged care settings.”

“It goes beyond PPE supplies and fit testing, OHS is about governance structures and staffing arrangements and so many other things.”

There were 655 deaths in private aged care, and none in public aged care. The numbers don’t lie. It all demonstrates that the way a system is run, from the top to the bottom, has very real ramifications for the workers who are on the frontline. Health and safety are so often put back onto the individual - the worker - but that would have to mean the workers in the two systems were completely different. They weren’t. It was management and profit motives that were the defining variables.

“Even now, running the vaccine strategy, the federal aged care system isn’t being managed effectively at all. First they were talking about taking the vaccine to the aged care workforce, and that didn’t happen. Then they were told to go to their GP. Now they’re being told they’re going to set up aged care vaccination hubs. The messaging keeps changing.”

Look at the United States. You could say that the US healthcare system wasn’t able to handle a pandemic, but in a very real sense, the US doesn’t have a healthcare system. It’s really only a patchwork of private companies, insurance agencies and for-profit care providers. Having a strong union is a great start - indeed, one of the ANMF’s biggest global partners and strongest American unions is the California Nurses’ Association - but when there’s no corresponding system to engage with, it makes for a much harder struggle.

Psychological Trauma

“There’s a lot of unrecognised collective trauma: they just got on and did it,” reflects Madeleine.

“Our members are very pragmatic people. They adapted. They didn’t see their friends. Some of them moved out of their homes to keep their families safe. And we’re already starting to see the impact on healthcare workers' mental health.”

Remember SARS? It was a long time ago, so it’s okay if you don’t often think about it. But almost 20 years on, studies have shown how the outbreak of a serious, communicable disease can leave ongoing psychological trauma for healthcare workers. And it was nowhere near the size of what we are going through now. From that study: “The SARS cohort was associated with anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder/acute stress disorder (PTSD/ASD), and suicide.” Not to mention the high instances of alcohol and substance abuse that are already being reported in the wake of 2020. 

“We talk about resilience and coping strategies and wellbeing, but a lot of our members don’t think in those terms. They just get on and do it. In some ways it’s their strength: they don’t get fooled by workplace wellness programs in place of actual health and safety. But how do you process things? When do you process things? It’s something we really need to engage with - how to look after our members and the people who looked after us during this time.”

This IWMD as well as remembering the dead, we also reflect on the frontline workers who risk their lives day in, day out, during the COVID-19 pandemic.We will be doing this on the 28th of April in a ceremony outside Trades Hall, as we do every year.

RSVP here to ensure COVID protocols are followed.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw a massive uptick in members using our free legal service to update their wills,” says Madeleine Harradence, ANMF Victoria Assistant Secretary. It’s a bleak but timely reminder that many nurses and midwives thought about the prospect of dying from contracting COVID-19. It’s not hard to imagine why.

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