For the past year, we have stayed home, stayed safe, and done our best to flatten the curve. We've worked from home, picked up new hobbies, revived old ones, and generally tried our best to stay sane through this turbulent time.
But there's one section of society that has come to the forefront during this pandemic. They've put on their masks, they've donned their PPE kits, and they've faced this menace head on - healthcare professionals. And over the past year, healthcare professionals have been fighting tooth and nail to bring us out of this terrible situation.
A doctor's primary job lies in preserving and protecting life. However, sometimes, that is not the final outcome of their efforts, and during this ongoing global health crisis, that has become way too common an occurrence. While we have reflected on the mental health at the workplace and the negative effects the pandemic has had on the workforce, today, we shift that focus to healthcare workers and the immense psychological impact this pandemic has had on them.
We spoke with several healthcare workers and administrators in hospitals big and small, and they shared their stories on the condition of anonymity. The names below have been changed on request. This is what we learned:
The sheer scale of loss is unimaginable
When the pandemic first hit, it caught everyone unaware. From Wuhan to Washington, we were all flabbergasted with the rate at which the virus was spreading, infecting, and taking lives. It felt unreal. While governments, industries, and individuals retreated behind closed doors and lockdowns, a select group of people stepped up and took the fight to the virus. Armed with masks and PPE kits, the medical community came together and faced the threat posed by the virus head on.
But despite their best efforts, as the world struggled with understanding, studying, and researching ways to beat the virus in the early months, the human cost was massive.
With ICU’s packed to capacity and medical staff running from pillar to post, doctors and nurses put their own health concerns aside to try and help.
But in a lot of cases, it wasn’t enough. “With no vaccine in sight, those first few months had us simply treating patients for the fevers brought on with COVID. But as the infection spread in their bodies, all we could do was try and make them as comfortable as possible in the final stages of their lives,” said Dr. Neil Duncan, a doctor from a Southern California hospital.
“As doctors, we’re trained to deal with the loss of life. We’re used to it. But this… nothing prepared us for this.” he continued.
Grief comes with the job
Dr. Duncan’s sentiments are not unique.
As medical systems collapsed around the world and doctors witnessed a catastrophic loss of life on an almost daily basis, they struggled to cope as well.
Dr. Angela Luiz, a cardiologist at a hospital in Porto Alegre says “People think doctors are uncaring, unfeeling beings who see patients as nothing more than bodies. But that is not true. Every time a patient comes in, we are acutely aware of the fact that we hold a living person’s life in our hands. Even the smallest misstep could lead to the worsening of their quality of life on a normal day. Now imagine that stress, and add the multitudes of patients we try and treat every day with COVID with no proper treatment. It is our job to save lives, but here, we are, in most cases, little more than mere spectators”
The grief that comes with constantly witnessing the loss of life around them has taken a toll. A study published in the US National Library of Medicine has found that frontline workers face a higher likelihood of depression, anxiety, and even PTSD, with an increased risk of severe mental illness as a direct result of dealing with this crisis on a daily basis.
The biggest fear and threats faced by frontline workers
The anxiety, stress, depression brought on by fighting the virus seeps into other areas of their lives as well. Despite their best efforts to stand strong, healthcare workers are, at the end of the day, human too. The fear that we all felt of getting infected by the virus was ramped up manifold for them due to being in direct contact with the virus and people carrying it.
Even as the vaccine was created and hospitals made vaccinations available to doctors, the risk of carrying the virus back home and infecting a loved one still remained.
A study by India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) states that concerns related to carrying an infection home to a loved one is the biggest fear faced by frontline workers.
As fear and anxiety gripped the world, people retreated behind closed doors under lockdown and started taking every precaution possible. In their desperation to avoid the virus and stay as far away from it as possible, however, some people turned on the very doctors who were trying to fight the virus.
A report by the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition (SHCC) found that India and Mexico saw 125 and 49 cases of violence against healthcare workers respectively since the start of the pandemic.
The role of employers in the healthcare sector
With healthcare professionals continuing to fight the good fight, but facing all these hardships, employers and governments have stepped up to help them.
Hospitals, labs, and nursing homes have set up grief and trauma counselling access to their employees, while also providing free vaccinations to the frontline workers.
Some hospitals have taken extra steps to try and alleviate their staff’s stress. Hospitals have started tying up with nearby luxury hotels to provide rooms for their doctors to rest and recuperate in when not on duty.
In India, with the country ravaged by the disease and the medical system on the verge of collapse, final year medical students and interns have been brought in for emergency support. The country has also introduced an insurance scheme for its COVID warriors.
While the timeline of the crisis remains unknown, it goes without saying that employers in the healthcare sector will need to step up on the care extended to their staff, making their efforts more sustainable, scalable and compassionate.
Front line workers have spent the past year fighting the virus so we can come out the other side safe and secure. We cannot do their job. But we can appreciate what they’re trying to do every day, and empower them through this prolonged crisis. When we get to the other side, let’s make sure we remember to appreciate those who put everything on the line to help those who needed it most.