The COVID-19 pandemic brings a realisation of the occupational health hazards associated with the health fraternity at large. Although health hazards amongst health professionals are more pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic they are not exclusive to this condition.
Many health workers in Botswana have at some point been exposed to various infections such as HIV, Hepatitis B and C through accidental pricks and cuts from contaminated needles and sharp objects and even splashes from infected bodily fluids from patients or even airborne exposure in the case of Tuberculosis and other airborne diseases. Unfortunately, these diseases infect some of them after exposure in the workplace.
For a long time, there has been a severe shortage of health workers in Botswana’s health care system particularly; doctors and nurses. This shortage has led to nurses multitasking by doing the job of different health professionals such as pharmacists, doctors and phlebotomists. Nurses in our health care system have had to work for very long hours even beyond the time stipulated by labour laws. Likewise, because of their short supply locally, doctors have had to work under extremely demanding conditions without adequate rest and recuperation.
While society expects a lot from health care workers it should proportionally invest in the complete wellbeing of those who sacrifice their time, health and even their lives for their health workers are not mere robots programmed to execute medical duties, they should be looked at holistically as human beings who also get tired and burnt out. They are also emotional beings with feelings, fears, anxieties, families and social lives.
The nation should remember that as much as health workers have a social obligation towards the health of all it also has an obligation towards making sure that they are in the right state financially, mentally, emotionally and physically to optimally execute their extremely essential duties. The nation of Botswana should at all costs take good care of the ones who take care of their health. Salaries of health care workers in Botswana are very low and incomparable to those of their colleagues in neighbouring Namibia and South Africa. In addition to this, their remuneration does not at all come close to the rigorous effort they put in patients’ care.
The tough responsibilities of health care workers are in broad day light, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the nation should not be negligent of their rights. Proper Protective Equipment should be
It is time for our government to consider initiating a risk allowance for health care workers and a pay structure unique to their working conditions. Health care workers are entitled to appropriate working hours with breaks and should be compensated appropriately for working extended hours beyond normal ones. Currently the Overtime and On Call Allowances of health professionals offered by the government is greatly flawed, because these allowances are fixed regardless of how long they work and the number of times they go on call. Many health care workers do not have proper accommodation whilst attending to the welfare of many.
The government should find it fit to avail accommodation, subsidise house rentals and mortgages for all health care workers so they can give undivided attention to their profession. It is the right of health care workers to receive adequate compensation, rehabilitation and curative services in the event of COVID-19 infection or death. If indeed the health of the nation is a priority the wellbeing of health care workers will also be of utmost importance.
They are at the frontline of the battle against this worldwide pandemic. This is a wakeup call to the government of Botswana and its stakeholders to invest greatly in the safety, health and holistic well-being of health care workers at all levels so that our country can have a robust health care system that can stand against current and upcoming public health issues. When everyone is self- isolating, quarantined and under lockdown, it is health care workers who will be left to confront and successfully eliminate COVID-19.
*Dr Godwill Gulubane is a Public Health Medicine Resident at the University of Botswana (Faculty of Medicine).