MAY 12 is celebrated as International Nurses Day as it marks the birth of the founder of modern nursing Florence Nightingale and the formal recognition of nursing in public health and. In addition, the United Nations World Health Assembly resolved to celebrate nurses and midwives by declaring 2020 as the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife (IYNM). In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year more than ever, International Nurses Day should be celebrated, and nurses recognised not as “unsung heroes”, but as professionals who deserve the respect of all society and are worthy of decent wages and protection.
The pandemic has demonstrated how vital public health workers are to our survival. Yet nurses are being dangerously overworked, given inadequate protective equipment, suffering trauma and stress, have been assaulted and abused, and are even being evicted from their homes.
In a survey of health unions conducted by Public Services International (PSI) 56.5% of respondents indicated that workers have not been given adequate PPE during the COVID-19 pandemic. While we don’t know the true figure of how many healthcare workers have been infected, we do know that hundreds have already died.
The COVID-19 crisis has been made worse by years of under-funding of public health systems and the ideological virus of neoliberalism.
While the healthcare industry is one of the largest growing industries globally, public funding for vital public health services is failing to meet needs. In too many countries, public funding for health is being eaten up by costs inflated by the medical industry. Too many nurses and other healthcare workers are hired on short-term or insecure contracts. Now is the time to recognise that poor wages and conditions put public health at risk.
Health systems would not have been so unprepared for the pandemic if they had been adequately funded if governments had legislated for adequate nurse to patient ratios and if countries ensured they had the productive capacity for lifesaving PPE, medical equipment, medical research and the production of vaccines and treatments.
In its recently published report, State of the World’s Nursing, the World Health Organization found that, even prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, the world needed 6 million additional nurses to meet minimum health needs. Governments must expend funds for nursing education and training and not rely on importing nurses from countries that are also struggling to meet their own public health needs. The best way to attract and retain nurses is to recognise the social value of their work, pay them properly and ensure adequate staffing levels.
Global public health, and the individual right to health, can only be achieved if all elements of public health services are owned, managed, staffed and delivered through a public system, from the monitoring of public health, health research, health diagnostics and data, to tertiary care and provision of medicines.
Funds for public health must not be taken from other public services. Nor should developing countries be forced into additional debt. Instead, we call for reform of national and global tax and financing rules that currently allow USD30 trillion to be hidden in tax havens. When multinational corporations and billionaires use tax avoidance measures, they are deliberately undermining our public health system and refusing to contribute to the salaries of nurses, health workers and others delivering the public services required for a functioning and healthy society.
As we rebuild from the crisis, we must transform the way societies are organised. We must organise our societies around the capacity to care. When care and wellbeing of all people is the central organising principle of a society, rather than the capacity to extract and grow profits and consumption, all society will prosper. We must all recognise the union adage Touch One Touch All – if our healthcare systems cannot care for all, we are all at risk.
Today, more than 120 unions representing nurses and healthcare workers, organisations and their members released the International Nurses Day 2020 Manifesto: No Going Back!, because we want it to mark the day governments turned away from the failed, and ultimately dangerous, ideology of neoliberalism and austerity, and instead committed to rebuilding economies through large scale investments in universal public health.
You can sign the Manifesto here.
This article is adapted from the International Nurses Day 2020 Manifesto.