COVID Crisis: What Have Our Health Workers Received ‘In Return’?
Proper mental health counselling and support services should also be available to all health workers at this time.
News reports a couple of days ago indicated that two doctors returned to duty after attending the cremation of their mothers. This kind of selfless service by millions of healthcare workers throughout the country is being reported often, even as the COVID pandemic rages on.
When the country needed them the most, the healthcare workers sacrificed their lives and family priorities to ensure that health services never take a hit.
The hiring of and capacity-building for healthcare workers is not among the highest priorities for most state governments.
Whenever the states want to reduce the overall outlay of the budget, not hiring enough numbers or not allowing greater opportunities for career growth are the easiest options.
Consequently, there is a huge shortfall in the vacancies to be filled in the public health sector. Some governments have not paid salaries to health workers. Besides, there is a huge disparity in the salaries and benefits between the private and public sector.
Why Should Healthcare Workers Have to be ‘Self-Sufficient’ And Look After Themselves?
Even within the private sector, there are huge differentials between the top rung and the lower levels. Most healthcare workers barely make enough to take care of their needs, and do not have a surplus to take care of their medical expenditures when they fall sick due to the nature of their duties. Our healthcare professionals are at higher risk of catastrophic medical expenditure as compared to other workgroups; they are also at higher risk of contracting illness in case of infectious diseases. Also, they have a higher risk for non-communicable diseases due to physical inactivity, high-stress levels and irregular food habits.
Taking care of the health of the healthcare workers is and should be the nation’s foremost priority. Instead of taking care of the health and welfare of the healthcare workers, most often the general understanding is that the health workers should be ‘self-sufficient’ — to take care of themselves. This is the tragic irony.
The healthcare workers are subjected to routine wear and tear, similar to other industries, and have higher occupational hazards due to the nature of their work; health insurance provides an adequate level of coverage in case of either illness or injury.
In addition to health insurance, there should also be sufficient reserves to take care of out-of-pocket expenditures due to major illness. As a society we expect doctors and healthcare workers to be ‘super heroes’ — but fail to provide them with the resources that are not even sufficient for ordinary living and lifestyle.
COVID Insurance Coverage For Healthcare Workers — And Govt’s ‘Back & Forth’
In addition to physical illness, healthcare workers are at greater risk of suffering mental and emotional problems due to the very nature of their activities under a pandemic situation. They also have additional challenges in terms of fighting stigma that arises out of the spread of infectious diseases.
The health workers don’t need anyone’s sympathy, empty promises, and appreciation without any efforts to value their contribution.
The central government had announced the ‘Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Package’ scheme for healthcare workers on 30 March 2020, for 90 days. This period of insurance was extended initially for another 90 days, then another six months. But panic and disappointment ensued a couple of days ago, when the government decided to withdraw the insurance cover by 23 April. However, after many entities and bodies including the Service Doctors and Post Graduates Association wrote to the Union Health Minister and other top leadership, the scheme was now been extended for another three months, starting from 20 April.
Important to Take Care Of Our Healthcare Workers, Including Their Career Goals & Mental Well Being
It would have been unfair for the government to go back on their promise.
It is important to set up separate financial locations supplemented by corporate social responsibilities to take care of the frontline workers especially during these times. The interests and other proceeds of such a funding mechanism should pay towards the premium and cover the insurance of all the frontline workers in the country.
In addition to this, proper mental health counselling, and support services should be available to all healthcare workers, especially while fighting a pandemic.
A robust policy to hire, sustain and promote the career opportunities for healthcare workers should be in place in order to attract the best of the talent pool to healthcare delivery. Failing this, innovations may not be possible for promoting healthy populations. Taking care of our health workers is the primary responsibility of any civilised society
(Dr Giridhar R Babu is a Professor of life course epidemiology with Public Health Foundation of India, Bengaluru. He tweets @epigiri. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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