By Jemimah Kimeu
Worldwide, nurses and midwives play a vital role in providing health services. There are times when they are the first and only point of health care in communities. The World Health Organization (WHO) designated 2020 as the International Year for the Nurse and Midwife. WHO had envisioned nurses celebrating their achievements and being celebrated by the whole world especially by the people whose lives they have touched. The goal was to highlight the role of nurses and midwives in health care delivery, the challenging work conditions they face and to urge governments to invest more in the nursing and midwifery workforce.
Unfortunately, even before they could begin the celebrations, the nurses’ role was thrust into the limelight in a very dramatic and practical way in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak putting them right at the frontline of a battle for which no one was fully prepared.
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, nurses in Kenya already faced workplace challenges which included lack of basic equipment and supplies, and nurse shortages leading to nurse-patient ratios that compromise quality of care and safety of both patients and nurses. The onslaught of this COVID-19 pandemic in developed countries has heightened fears for many nurses who at this point feel ill prepared to cope with such influx of patients should that happen to us. The apprehension is real considering some of countries with more resources and detailed emergency plans are getting overwhelmed. Statistics about nurses and other healthcare workers who have been infected has added to the fear and highlighted the vulnerability of the people at the battle front.
It is commendable that the government is making an effort to increase the number of health care workers and supplies in readiness for the worst. It is critical that staff at the front line have protective wear which include gowns, masks, face shields and gloves. Availing protective gear should go hand in hand with training on proper use and providing information to ensure staff safety. We must balance between protecting the caregivers and making sure we do not run out of supplies which will be much needed in the event the situation becomes as bad as is projected.
In my experience as a nurse I have observed that staff members make mistakes when they are scared. With the fear that has come with this pandemic these mistakes can result in failure to protect self from getting infected, or unknowingly exposing other patients to infection. This is why we must provide psychosocial support to the caregivers which includes one on one or group counselling, and accommodation for those who have been exposed or those do not wish to go home after work for fear of exposing their loved ones. Nurses are also having to deal with the stigma associated with the COVID-19 disease leading to social isolation and psychological trauma. We must support them in various ways to enable them continue offering the care that is needed at this point.
At the Aga Khan University Hospital, Nairobi, where I work, we have put in place a psychosocial support for our nurses and other staff members. In addition, comfortable staff accommodation has been identified as well as transportation to ease the burden of escalating cost of public transportation. Sharing information with our nurses and other staff on a regular basis and leadership visibility on the ground are other ways that are helping to calm the staff members. These are some of the practical yet highly impactful things that those in leadership at healthcare facilities can do to support the nurses.
The speed with which this pandemic hit the world by caught many by surprise and shock. As a country we are fortunate we can learn from the experiences of the countries that were first hit and be prepared to act fast. Every citizen needs to head the guidelines that have been provided to curb the spread of COVID-19 infection. Stay at home, wash hands frequently and maintain physical distance. With this you will protect yourself, your loved ones and healthcare workers.
To all the nurses on the frontline be encouraged we are a resilient force. When this crisis is over we shall have our global celebrations as earlier planned, only this time the guest list will include everyone else who is with us on the frontline and behind the scenes fighting the Coronavirus.
The writer is the Chief Nursing Officer at the Aga Khan University Hospital, Nairobi.