Nurses play a vital role on the front lines of the novel coronavirus pandemic. But a shortage of these essential health care workers could pose challenges in countries dealing with a growing number of COVID-19 cases.
“One of the lessons I hope the world learns from COVID-19 is that we must invest in nurses and midwives,” said World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during a speech Tuesday in celebration of World Health Day, which recognized the vital work of nurses and midwives worldwide.
The WHO chief said nurses around the globe are providing care for critically ill and isolated COVID-19 patients, at the risk of their own lives.
This is not the first time their importance has been highlighted in international emergencies. Nurses were also on the front lines of the Ebola outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and West Africa. In Liberia, they were the most affected by the outbreak among health care workers.
WHO’s new “State of the World’s Nursing 2020” report has identified a global shortage of 5.9 million nurses. Many of those gaps are found in Africa, Southeast Asia, the Eastern Mediterranean, and parts of Latin America.
Among regions of the world, the Americas have the highest density of nurses at 83.4 per 10,000 people, followed by Europe with 79.3 nurses per 10,000 people. In contrast, there are 8.7 nurses per 10,000 people in Africa, 15.6 nurses per 10,000 people in the Eastern Mediterranean region, 16.5 nurses per 10,000 people in Southeast Asia, and 36 nurses per 10,000 people in the Western Pacific.
But there are stark differences within regions. In the Americas, for example, countries such as Brazil, Canada, Chile, and the US have a higher density of nurses at close to or over 100 per 10,000 people, distorting the regional average. Many of the neighboring countries in the region have less than 50 nurses per 10,000 people. In Haiti, there are only 3.8 nurses per 10,000 people.
When broken down by country income, data in the report shows an unsurprising trend: The higher the income, the higher the nursing density. In low-income countries, the average density of nurses is 9.1 per 10,000 people, while the figure for high-income countries is 107.7 per 10,000 people.
But training more nurses won’t solve the problem, said Dr. Giorgio Cometto, WHO coordinator on human resources for health policies and standards.
“If the country lacks the economic capacity to employ them or to create economic opportunities for them to work as nurses … training more nurses can just go into the direction of exacerbating labor market imbalances, resulting in unemployment among nurses. And that’s a huge wastage of human capital as well as financial resources,” Cometto said.
exacerbate[ɪɡˈzæsərbeɪt]: vt. 使加剧;使恶化;激怒
The key is balancing training with the creation of employment opportunities in rural areas where there are known health worker shortages.
That may be easier said than done, especially among countries that are suffering from chronic or complex emergencies, in active conflict, or struggling in the wake of conflict. But in these settings, the international aid community can align its assistance with national priorities and covering recurrent costs, such as salaries, within a specified period of time, Cometto said.
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