The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the essential and central role of nurses in our healthcare systems. But it has also exposed serious shortcomings in those systems, which have led to far from optimal responses in many countries.
As I write this in April 2021, the pandemic is still raging, with more than 140 million confirmed cases worldwide; many countries are in the midst of a third wave of infections, and more than three million people have died from the virus. This is a monumental tragedy that has left almost no territory untouched, and it is still far from over.
And we must never forget about the many thousands of nurses who have contracted COVID-19 and those who have died because of a lack of resources, protective equipment and preparedness. This must never be allowed to happen again: health is a human right for everyone, including nurses, and governments have a duty of care to protect their people, including their nurses - we must never let them forget it.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of numerous successful vaccines, but for many people, it is a distant prospect. While vaccination programmes in high income countries are well underway, no country has vaccinated its entire population yet, and the roll out and distribution in low- and middle-income countries is uneven and, frankly, inequitable.
Wherever vaccination programmes are happening, nurses will be at the forefront, as they are in the provision of treatment and care for people who have succumbed to serious illness in response to the virus. The pandemic has taught the world a number of important lessons, not least just how important nurses are to our health and to our physical, psychological and economic wellbeing.
Governments need to take heed of these lessons if we are to come out of the pandemic in a better state to deliver healthcare for all, and with our healthcare services in a better condition to tackle future international health emergencies in whatever format they arise, including further pandemics caused by novel viruses.
The fundamental message is that we need to change existing models of care away from a hospital-based services to ones that are embedded in public health and community care. It is in these settings, closer to people’s homes and fully integrated into local communities, that nurses can make the most difference to people’s lives.
Despite the challenges posed by a lack of resources and by hospital-based models of care, I believe nurses hold the key to a better, brighter future that can provide easier access to more effective healthcare for more people.
We need to shift the emphasis to health promotion, disease prevention and early intervention so that we can get a grip on the growth of non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes.
We need to capitalise on the increased use of technology by nurses during the pandemic, which has enabled them to continue to deliver high quality care and support at a safe distance from their vulnerable patients.
We need to focus on the long-term effects of COVID-19, in relation the enduring symptoms that millions of people are suffering, and the mental health needs it has created.
We need to focus on the enormous amount of untreated illness that has arisen as a result of delays in care during the pandemic and people’s reluctance to seek help.
Nurses have the expertise, the skills, care and courage to bring healthcare to everyone if they are properly resourced and exposed to top quality continuous professional development.
Nurses can go wherever their patients are and provide cost-effective, high-quality care to the masses, whether they are in remote areas or in marginalised groups.
All of this can happen, but it will only happen if governments recognise the lessons of the pandemic and invest in nursing jobs, education and leadership, as ICN and the World Health Organization outlined in last year’s State of the World’s Nursing report.
The world is facing a shortfall of up to ten million nurses over the next decade, possibly more if the trauma the COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted on the world’s nurses takes its toll on their willingness to carry on.
Governments need to act now. They need to recognise that investing in nursing will create massive returns in terms of greater wellbeing for their peoples and more strength for their economies. They need to realise that not investing in nursing will be a false economy that will be much more costly in the long run.
*Header image copyright: Bruno Lavi - IND2021 photo contest winner