By Stephen Charles Olet
It is now an un-debatable fact that health workers, especially those in the front line, have higher odds of getting infected with coronavirus due to the increased exposure time with the infected persons.
When cases of COVID-19 were first reported at the end of last year, the World Health Organization issued the first edition of guidance on infection prevention and control (IPC) strategies for use when infection with the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) was suspected. That guidance was based on knowledge of the situation in China and other countries where cases were identified.
It is very costly to train fresh health workers compared to providing the already trained health workers with adequate personal protection equipment (PPE). If the government of Uganda does not give priority to protection of the frontline health workers, the country will be heading for doom as we have already read about a number of doctors and other cadres of health workers who succumbed to the deadly contagion in countries like China, Italy, Spain, just to mention but a few.
Occupational health deals with all aspects of health and safety in the workplace, and has a strong focus on primary prevention of hazards. The health of the workers has several determinants, including risk factors at the workplace leading to spread of communicable diseases. In the same light, if provided with the right and adequate PPE, Ugandan health workers can be protected from the occupational hazard of contracting COVID-19 from their infected patients.
Recently, in the Washington State of the United States of America (USA), a physician and emergency doctor, Ming Lin, was fired by his organization for speaking out about the complete lack of personal protection equipment (PPE) for frontline staff. I hope I will also not get fired for speaking about the same. Anyway, sincerely speaking, the firing of Dr. Ming was very unprofessional and it was actually an act of dictatorship which I didn’t expect to come from a developed country like the USA.
Before flights were banned, I interacted with one of my friends who is pursuing a Master’s degree in Public Health from one of the universities in Uganda; she was working with the COVID-19 surveillance team. She told me that she had spent the whole day at the airport with the rest of her teammates screening for coronavirus among the passengers from the planes which had landed in the country. Among them were those retained to undergo institutional quarantine. She told me that she had some flu which worried her, thinking that she could have gotten infected with the COVID-19.
She expressed her fears and assured me that she would never go back for the job again, simply because they were not being provided with adequate protective gears except one mask per person and a pair of gloves per head, a situation which was putting their lives at risk.
During my interaction with that lady, who was a frontline health worker, I realized that she was willing to serve her country but her greatest fear was to contract the disease and to subsequently infect her family members with the same, due to inadequate protection.
No health worker is immune to infection from coronavirus as the majority of Ugandan health workers go through the dilemma or conflicting loyalty of choosing to serve their country with the available inadequate protective gears or to sit with folded arms and watch the disease spread among Ugandans.
I have heard and watched on the news some cases where health workers from some health facilities in the rural areas of the country took off after patients presented with signs similar to that of COVID-19. Aware of the high virulence and the mode of transmission of the virus, the health workers never wanted to take any risk to handle the suspected cases without adequate protection. I am sure those health workers would not have taken to their heels if they had the necessary PPE.
Doctors take the Hippocratic Oath during graduation from the medical school. This oath guides them to base the care of each patient not only on the latest skills and techniques, but also on the recognition of the unique needs and welfare of the patient. The devotion of the compassionate health workers to the patient may be eroded as observance of the oath and professional code of conduct face challenges from limited supplies of logistics such as the personal protection equipment.
FOR GOD AND MY COUNTRY
The writer is a Medical Epidemiologist and an Associate Lecturer