If the COVID-19 outbreak tells us anything it is the critical importance of public health preparedness.
Three months ago it was a completely unknown virus, now it has spread globally, there is no known vaccine and many of the world’s health systems are ill equipped to deal with the clinical consequences.
From a biological point of view outbreaks of new pathogens are inevitable. Over the last fifteen to twenty years there have been similar outbreaks: SARS, H1N1, Ebola, MERS and Zika.
We should be much better prepared for these epidemics. Although some lessons have been learnt from previous outbreaks, many haven’t.
Both China and the World Health Organization learnt from the SARS outbreak. China enforced drastic measures to contain COVID-19 near its epicenter in Wuhan for as long as possible. This gave WHO valuable time to bolster the weak health systems of the most vulnerable countries in Africa and Latin America (see pp 12-13).
COVID-19 has exposed deeper deficiencies in the preparedness and funding of global health systems.
As one expert has said: “Fewer than one in three countries are close to being prepared to confront an epidemic which leaves the vast majority of the world’s population vulnerable. That in turn leaves us all vulnerable because we are only as safe as the least safe place.”
Even before the COVID-19 outbreak the World Health Organization (WHO) had made the spread of universal health systems its key priority. Tellingly, it identified nurses and midwives as the key to their spread and effectiveness. It is a major reason why it declared 2020 the Year of the Nurse and Midwife (see pp 14-15).
WHO has a very clear message for governments and policy makers everywhere: more nurses are critical for global health and governments need to invest more in the nursing and midwifery workforce.
WHO estimates that there is a global shortage of 18 million health workers including 9 million nurses.
While Australia has an excellent health system we are not immune to this problem. The NSWNMA and the ANMF have campaigned relentlessly over a long period of time to alert governments and the public about the vulnerability of our own health services (and aged care).
Even though it is the early days of the epidemic our health system is already under stress with nurses facing drastic increases in demand, shortages of equipment and a climate of fear and uncertainty among the public.
I applaud you all for your calm, measured and professional response to these unprecedented challenges.
I want to assure you, we’re doing everything we can to support all of our members. Whether that’s negotiating special leave with your employer, enforcing Work Health and Safety, especially around Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), answering your questions, or providing updates with the latest information.
Your union is here for you and we’re working hard to keep you safe.
As frontline workers during this health crisis, there’s no doubt nurses and midwives are going to experience unprecedented demand. This is why the NSWNMA is urging the New South Wales Government to expedite its planned five thousand health ‘workforce boost’ promised at the last election and allocate extra nursing staff immediately.
We’re making headway. Our ongoing negotiations alongside other unions we have won New South Wales Health employees access to 20 days of special paid leave for COVID-19. We’re also in discussions with multiple private sector and aged care employers around special leave; isolation strategies and frameworks similar to the public sector.
The Federal Government has implemented restrictions on visitors to aged care facilities and many LHDs are also limiting non-essential meetings. In light of this, and to ensure NSWNMA staff do not place unnecessary pressure on the health system, we will not be visiting hospitals or facilities unless the visit relates to a WHS matter and is urgent. We’ve increased the number of officers available to answer your questions and we are changing our systems to do that in light of the new circumstances we face. We’re also sending regular updates regarding your rights and entitlements.
Given the increase in demand for advice and the need for members to contact us outside business hours, we’re working on improved methods to speed up our response times. We are making changes internally to ensure we can continue to provide members the essential assistance you all need from your union in unprecedented times.