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Governments must take action now to curb violence against nurses around the world who are being threatened with violence while working with Covid-19 patients, according to international leaders.
While healthcare workers have been mostly celebrated during the coronavirus pandemic, “not everyone appreciates their efforts and contributions”, they said in an article published in The Lancet.
“The reasons people attack and abuse healthcare personnel during health emergencies are many, and local contexts vary”
The representatives from the International Council of Nurses, Physicians for Human Rights and the World Medical Association noted that such violence was not new but should never be accepted.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, they warned that media headlines had told of healthcare personnel facing attacks as they travelled to and from work.
“Nurses and doctors have been pelted with eggs and physically assaulted in Mexico,” they said. “In the Philippines, a nurse was reportedly attacked by men who poured bleach on his face, damaging his vision.
“Across India, reports describe healthcare workers being beaten, stoned, spat on, threatened, and evicted from their homes. These are just a few examples among many across numerous countries, including the USA and Australia,” they added.
The reasons why nurses and other healthcare staff were being targeted in this way was complicated, but often linked to poor official communications or other failings, the article authors suggested.
“The reasons people attack and abuse healthcare personnel during health emergencies are many, and local contexts vary,” they said.
“In some settings during the Covid-19 pandemic, fear, panic, misinformation about how SARS-CoV-2 [coronavirus] can spread, and misplaced anger are likely drivers.”
In their article, they set out a series of recommendations on what governments need to do to reduce such attacks on nurses and ensure that perpetrators of violence are dealt with properly.
“Across India, reports describe healthcare workers being beaten, stoned, spat on, threatened, and evicted from their homes”
They stated that attacks needed to be prevented and, when they did occur, condemned, along with the enforcement of “strong actions” against the perpetrators by local and national governments.
They also called for the collection of data on the incidence and types of attacks on healthcare personnel, including in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In addition, they called for investment by state and local governments in health security measures to protect healthcare workers, as part of Covid-19 emergency budgets.
Lastly, they called for “unity” among health professionals and their associations in “speaking out forcefully” against all acts of discrimination, intimidation and violence against healthcare workers.
“These actions must be taken now,” said the article authors, who include Howard Catton, chief executive of the International Council of Nurses.
“By protecting healthcare personnel, we protect our most valuable assets in the fight against Covid-19: doctors, nurses, emergency medical technicians, medical and respiratory technicians, laboratory workers, and many others on the front lines,” they noted.
The article follows previous calls from the ICN for a “zero-tolerance approach” to violence against nursing staff and other workers during the pandemic.
In the UK, Nursing Times has reported earlier in the Covid-19 crisis on nurses being heckled, verbally abused, spat at and labelled “disease-spreaders” by people in the street.
There were also reports at the start of lockdown of members of the public trying to take nurses’ badges at supermarkets, because they were allowed priority access during the pandemic.
Today, the ICN said it had been hearing from its network of national nurses’ associations about “highly concerning” reports of increasing violence aimed at nurses and other healthcare workers.
Nurses have been ostracised, abused and attacked because they had been in contact with Covid-19 patients, it said, noting that such attacks were “completely unacceptable under any circumstances”.
Mr Catton, said: “Whatever the reasons for such aggression and violence – and I suspect that much of it is the result of misinformation and ignorance – nurses are being put at increased risk at a time when their communities need them more than ever.
“Nurses are already in a high-risk situation, especially those working in close proximity to patients with Covid-19 without adequate personal protective equipment. But the fact that they fear physical attacks and abuse on their journeys to and from work is completely unacceptable,” he said.
He added: “We are calling on governments to take a zero-tolerance approach and to immediately take action to stop these attacks and provide safe passage for these key workers.
“These attacks are wrong and reprehensible but also at a time, when we have a shortfall of six million nurses and need to be attracting more to the profession, this is a message we can ill-afford to hear.”
During a recent ICN webinar with nurses from Central and Latin America, one nurse from Mexico said she and her colleagues had been ostracised by members of their community.
She said many people in Mexico either believed that COVID-19 was a hoax or feared that nurses were spreading the infection in the community.
Her colleagues had been sprayed with bleach or had hot coffee thrown at them on their way to and from work.