Healthcare workers are paying a high price in the global battle against COVID-19.
British nurse Andrew Nwankwo spent the last five weeks of his life on a ventilator in intensive care – a victim of coronavirus.
Described as a “big friendly giant”, 46-year-old Andrew worked at Bloomfield Hospital in Chelmsford, north-east of London.
A lack of personal protective equipment at the hospital reportedly forced Andrew to try to buy his own online.
“He was being sent to face the danger without being given the adequate protection – that’s the bottom line, and he told me as much,” his brother told the BBC.
A hospital spokesperson denied there had ever been a lack of PPE.
Andrew was among 101 nurses to die after contracting Covid-19 in England and Wales between 9 March and 25 May, according to the Office for National Statistics.
The ONS confirmed that nurses had “statistically significantly higher rates of death involving Covid-19” compared with the general population.
A lack of PPE remains a serious problem for nurses and other healthcare workers (HCWs) in many countries, according to the International Council of Nurses.
It called on governments to systematically record infection rates and deaths amongst HCWs and report the results to the World health Organization, in order to promote preventative measures.
ICN CEO, Howard Catton, said partial and preliminary figures raised a number of questions, including:
What contributes to the wide variation of HCW infection rates between countries, e.g. between 1 per cent in Singapore and more than 30 per cent in Ireland?
Why are some countries that have high numbers of cases recording low numbers of deaths among HCWs? For example, Germany and Spain.
How do HCW infection rates vary between different clinical settings, such as hospitals, and long-term care facilities, such as care homes?
“Nursing is looking like one of the most dangerous jobs in the world at the moment,” Catton said.
“We need to get this data for every country and work out exactly what is going on that explains the variations that are evident with even a cursory glance at the figures.
“Only then will we be able to learn how best to keep our nurses safe and prevent any repeat of these terrible statistics in the future.”
In the United States, which has the world’s highest number of Covid-19 infections, inadequate access to testing among the general population, a nationwide shortage of protective gear such as N95 masks, and lack of basic supplies like hand sanitiser are driving up the death toll among health workers.
By 1 July, the pandemic had taken the lives of 735 frontline HCWs in the US, according to Lost on the Frontline, a project launched by The Guardian newspaper and Kaiser Health News (KHN).
Lost on the Frontline aims to count, verify and memorialise every US healthcare worker who dies during the pandemic.
They include nurses like Helen Gbodi, 54, who worked at MedStar Washington hospital center in Washington DC.
Helen, a single parent, was known for helping elderly neighbours and fellow churchgoers, picking up their medications and groceries and accompanying them on walks.
Rebecca Gbodi said her mother worked long hours to put her three children through college and helped pay school fees for other relatives.
Though Helen did not actively care for patients who had been diagnosed with Covid-19, such patients were being treated on her floor, Rebecca said.
By the time Helen was hospitalised with Covid-19, she was too weak to lift her arm for a virtual handshake with her daughter on FaceTime.
In addition to tracking deaths, Lost on the Frontline reports on the challenges healthcare workers are facing during the pandemic.
It says many have been forced to reuse masks countless times amid widespread equipment shortages. Others had only garbage bags for protection.
“Some deaths have been met with employers’ silence or denials that they were infected at work,” it says.
‘Little flu’ kills 60,000 and counting
Before being admitted to intensive care with coronavirus in the Brazilian city of Manaus, a 46-year-old nurse named Nicolares Curico wrote to his wife, Deizeane: “Take care of our daughters. I love them.”
A week later, Nicolares was dead.
Deizeane said her husband loved his profession, but a lack of PPE and staff because so many colleagues were falling ill, had left him overworked and exposed.
“He felt unprotected because he didn’t have an N95 mask,” she said. “He was seeing more than 100 patients a day.”
Earlier this year, Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro described coronavirus as “a little flu” but the country now has the second-worst death toll in the world, behind only the US.
With no social distancing and few lockdown measures in place, it is feared that the death toll – almost 60,000 by 1 July – will continue to spiral.
The pandemic is having a particularly devastating impact on Brazil’s nurses.
A video from the Rio Nurses Union shows hospital staff sleeping in corridors and bodies covered in bin bags in wards where people are recovering from the virus.
Nurses recently assembled in the capital, Brasilia, to mourn the lives of their colleagues and protest a lack of PPE and lack of training in how to use available supplies.
During the vigil, they lit candles and laid crosses in memory of those who died from Covid-19.