How lessons from humanitarian crises can help health workers fight COVID-19

How lessons from humanitarian crises can help health workers fight COVID-19

By Paula Sansom

1st May 2020

As I listened to my sister (an NHS health worker working in ICU) describe to me what it was like working in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) with COVID-19 patients – how hot it was, how long it took to change in and out of her PPE, how she’d like a mirror in the dressing area to check her PPE, I realised I had something to say. As a seasoned emergency humanitarian response professional, working closely with Ministries of Health, and a nurse by background, I see very relevant lessons that can be applied to this pandemic, to support both the NHS and health workers.

In the 25 years that I’ve been working in health and humanitarian responses, COVID-19 is the biggest emergency we’ve ever faced. This is a tsunami, a humanitarian crisis with far reaching economic and social costs.

One lesson that applies from my experience delivering an Ebola emergency response in Sierra Leone is the need for collective action. The NHS doesn’t just want us all to stay at home so there is less work for them, they want us all to stay at home in order to protect ourselves. It might be you that needs them, and not just for COVID-19. This really was brought home to me last week when I heard that a hospital in France was seeing one patient, every hour who required a ventilator, knowing there will unlikely be enough ventilators for the number of patients nor the staff to care for them unless there was drastic action to protect services and increase capacity.

We need to work together – whether, across our department or our community, particularly when linked to safety. We hear great stories about how this is being done, but we hear upsetting ones that tell us that this is not always true.

We are and will continue to need to be flexible, adaptable, whether this is in the practitioner roles that we do (taking on more senior or junior healthcare tasks) or in what we are allowed or not allowed to do. In Sierra Leone, my role started out overseeing the building of an Ebola treatment centre for an international non-governmental organisation. I ended up staying an extra week setting up the “red zone”, putting up beds and setting out furniture and equipment. It needed to be done, someone had to do it and I could do it. Medical staff here in the UK will also now need to make tough and/or resource-based decisions that they have not had do before, and they will need the support to do this. Ideally, we need to put the resources, systems and plans in place so that they don’t have to.

We need to be open and honest, now is not the time to be afraid to say we don’t know how to do something, we need listen to each other, especially those we work with who may bring different experiences.

We need to share, our good and bad experiences, our know-how as we constantly learn about this new virus. How else can we learn if we do not share? Our learning curve is steep, and the urgency is now. No-one has all the answers but what we learn now may help others, many of those will have less resources and health workers than us. This is so important and that is why I am now giving my time to a new partnership called Frontline Collaboration Against COVID-19, that looks at ways we can apply humanitarian principles and know-how to fight this pandemic.

We need to look after ourselves and others, as many are doing now. It will be tough, many of our health workers and those working to tackle COVID-19 may not realise how tough it has been until this is over and they have the chance to come up for air. As they worry about their patients, their relatives, their colleagues, families and themselves, we need to put systems in place to support them, that is flexible to their needs, when they need it. For the rest of us, let’s look after and out for each other.

We will all find it hard; some will find it harder than others to cope with this new reality. As a colleague said the other day this is a marathon, not a sprint. So, take care, especially to my healthcare colleagues and peers everywhere, and wherever you are… and lastly be KIND…oh and wash your hands!

Paula Sansom, MBE, is a nurse by background and a recognised expert in the delivery of health services in emergency and crises. She is Senior Consultant with Operations Partnership and a member of Frontline Collaboration Against COVID-19’s Strategic Advisory Group. Paula has held senior roles across a wide range of NGOs and humanitarian organisations. In 2016 she was awarded an MBE in the New Year’s Honours List for Humanitarian services to Emergency Healthcare Abroad.

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