Nurses join forces globally to share information and take action on Covid-19 protections

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Korean nurses holding signs calling for global solidarity

Nurses join forces globally to share information and take action on Covid-19 protections

By Kari Jones

National Nurse magazine - April | May |June 2020 Issue

Nurses have long known they face common threats all around the world, from short staffing to privatization of care. Now, a deadly virus with no borders — and lax guidelines on protections — have underscored the importance of standing together globally. That’s why the world’s nurses have come together online over the past few months, sharing information, and taking unified action on Covid-19 protections, in a fight for their lives.

Global Nurses United webinars

In late March, Global Nurses United (GNU), an international federation of nurses’ unions cofounded by National Nurses United, held a webinar to sound the alarm on deadly missteps and, in some cases, negligence by governments, health care employers, and international agencies. The crisis was brought home by the tragic death from Covid-19 of a GNU affiliate leader in the Dominican Republic, Virgilio Lebron General Secretary of the Asociación de Enfermería del Instituto Dominicano de Seguros Sociales (ADEIDSS).

 GNU leaders were outraged that after sending a letter to the World Health Organization on Jan. 30, 2020, demanding the highest level of protections for nurses, the WHO had done nothing to strengthen its guidelines — and hadn’t even responded to the letter. Being left unprotected was incredibly distressing, said nurses around the world on the GNU webinar.

 “Two Italian nurses have committed suicide,” said webinar guest Andrea Bottega, national secretary of Italy’s NurSind union, that country’s largest nurses union. According to Bottega, a lack of protective equipment for nurses and health care workers in Italy, as well as lack of early testing, resulted in huge numbers of Italy’s nurses and health care workers contracting Covid-19. With cases and deaths in his country surging, at the time the webinar was held, Bottega said desperate nurses had been trying to make protective gear from garbage bags.

 Rafael Reig Recena, secretary general of Trade Union Action of the Nursing Union (SATSE) of Spain, said that in Spain, “personal protection equipment, even the most basic” was not available, in many cases, for health workers, due to “bad organization and lack of government foresight.” Spain did take the step in March of nationalizing all its private hospitals to control a coordinated response to Covid-19.

“There is one thing that we should all be very aware of: the day after this pandemic ends. That day, we must hold our authorities accountable for their bad management,” said Reig Recena, stressing that unions must take principal part in that claim. “Our governments will try to convince us that this never happened, that the nurses were never sent unprotected to a fight where they risked their lives every day.”

Yet, some countries had managed to curb Covid-19, GNU leaders emphasized, proving that strong government, employer, and union efforts work. Sun Ja Na, president of the Korean Health and Medical Workers Union (KHMU), described on the call how South Korea turned an initial explosion of cases into a relative decline. Taiwan’s quick action also kept cases low in that country, despite its proximity to China.

“As Taiwanese people, we are very proud of our country for good infection control so far,” said Sabrina Chang of the Taiwan Nurses Union, “but we are more worried about our government being so oppressive on health workers’ labor rights, which also has a big impact on keeping nurses and our patients safe.”

In both Taiwan and South Korea, according to union leaders, widespread testing for Covid-19, as well as ample protective gear for nurses and health care workers, played a big role in slowing the spread of the virus in those countries.

But a pandemic cannot be stopped with uneven global action, GNU affiliates emphasized. All countries need to step up, and the organization in charge of the world’s health, the WHO, should have recommended the highest level of protections. This virus has no borders, so we can’t do things right in just a few places, say nurses; we must do things right everywhere.

Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions (CFNU) Facebook live

Given their countries’ shared border, nurses from Canada and the United States have a special relationship. To share ideas and information about challenges Canadian and American nurses are facing during Covid-19, NNU President Zenei Cortez, RN, joined Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions (CFNU) President Linda Silas, RN on her weekly Facebook Live during Nurses’ Week.

“We are always united in our struggles but never more so than now,” said Cortez, advising that Canada should remain vigilant in fighting the “blatant and creeping privatization” that already defines America’s health care system. 

“The United States is so far behind that we don’t even know what we don’t know,” Cortez continued, emphasizing that America is lagging in all testing, including testing health care workers, has no comprehensive contact tracing in place, has few or no surge plans nor capacity, and is allowing a shockingly high percentage of health care workers to get infected by not providing enough PPE.

Silas shared some successes in Canada, including a guidance from the Ontario Ministry of Health early on in Covid-19, saying airborne precautions must be used with Covid-19 patients.

“They learned from SARS in 2003 you have to use the precautionary principle,” said Silas. After pressure from federal and international governments, Silas explained that Ontario “watered down” their protections, and the Ontario Nurses Association had to fight for a statement between employers and the local government agreeing that if a health care worker does a point-of-care risk assessment and determines airborne protections are needed, the worker will get those protections. Several other provinces followed suit with similar statements.

So while Canada’s public health system had some protections that nurses in the United States didn’t have (no nurses in Canada had died of Covid-19 at the time of the Facebook Live, although one died after the Facebook Live), Silas emphasized that nurses in Canada were also being asked to reuse PPE. And long-term care in Canada has seen the most problems in the Covid-19 era, said Silas.

“In Canada, the only area [that is] monetized is in long-term care because it is not a part of our Canada Health Act,” said Silas, explaining that privatization in long-term care makes that area of health care prone to putting profits over seniors and employees during Covid-19. “So we are demanding, including our Canadian Labor Congress, to reexamine how we deliver care to seniors.”

Silas and Cortez took questions from the audience and drove home the importance of working together, across borders.

“This pandemic has starkly illustrated we are all connected, and we must no longer ignore that fact,” said Cortez.

UNISON video call

UNISON, the largest public-sector union and the second-largest nurses union in the United Kingdom, held a video call on May 12, International Nurses Day, bringing together UNISON, National Nurses United, and the Democratic Nursing Organization of South Africa, to speak to an audience of nurses, health care workers, and other public- sector workers from around the world.

NNU President Jean Ross, RN, emphasized on the call that nurses are being threatened like never before at a time when nurses were supposed to be honored like never before.

“The profound and cruel irony is the World Health Organization designated 2020 to be the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife,” said Ross. “Yet national governments and local governments have failed us; there’s been a complete void of leadership. You know who’s filled that void? Nurses.”

NNU President Deborah Burger, RN spoke about the social conditions in the United States that amplified the impact of Covid-19.

“Our private health insurance system is a colossal failure,” Burger said. “The government, hospitals, and health care employers knew what supplies needed to be on hand for an infectious disease. But they didn’t want to pay for it.”

Mavis Mulaudzi, first deputy president of Democratic Nursing Organization of South Africa (DENOSA), encouraged nurses and health care workers around the world to join hands in the fight “because our challenges are the same.” Mulaudzi explained that South Africa was the hardest hit country in Africa, and nurses fought hard for protections.

 “The first thing we raised our voices for was adequate PPE. We made a lot of noise,” said Mulaudzi. “The government then started to include us in decision-making, and we began to tell them our challenges. 

Of course, union leaders emphasized, things were not easy, even before Covid-19.

“We’d had 10 years of austerity and in the UK, nurses have faced many challenges,” said Caroline Smith, chair of UNISON East Midlands International Committee. Smith’s colleague, Chris Jacobson, UNISON East Midlands regional secretary, pointed out that a return to “normal” is out of the question.

“Our leaders are all too quick to evoke the language of war in this pandemic,” said Jacobson. “They tell us this is the new age of sacrifice and resilience and a collective endeavor...As working people did at the end of the second world war, we have to demand a better future.”

“International solidarity is civilization’s only way forward,” echoed NNU President Zenei Cortez, RN.