Health and Healthcare Systems

Doctors and nurses around the world are calling in sick

Doctors receive instructions for a respirator system at the intensive care unit of the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Hamburg, Germany, March 25, 2020, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues

German doctors wearing PPE are trained to use a ventilator Image: via REUTERS

Simon Brandon
Journalist, freelance
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  • One in four doctors in the UK is either ill or self-isolating.
  • A similar picture is emerging in countries round the world.
  • Medical professionals are raising concerns over the lack of protective equipment with which they are being provided.

The COVID-19 pandemic is putting health systems around the world under immense pressure.

The lockdowns that now affect one-third of the global population are intended to ‘flatten the curve’ of infection rates to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed. But this virus is attacking healthcare systems from another flank, too: healthcare workers.

In the UK, according to the head of the Royal College of Physicians, one-in-four National Health Service (NHS) doctors is off work at the moment, either because they are ill or self-isolating. On 24 March, a general practitioner from Southend, a town in the east of England, became the UK’s first doctor to die from the disease.

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It’s not just doctors affected, of course; one in five nurses in the UK has taken time off to isolate themselves, according to the Royal College of Nursing.

The situation in other countries is similarly grim. In Italy, nearly one in 10 of all COVID-19 cases have been healthcare workers. In Spain, the figure is even higher; 5,400 of the country’s 40,000 confirmed cases (as of 24 March) have been frontline medical staff. In China, in the first week of March, the country’s National Health Commission said that 3,300 healthcare workers had been infected.

In the US, meanwhile, the equivalent data is often patchy or has not been disclosed publicly - but, according to Buzzfeed News, medical professionals across the country are reporting that many of their colleagues being taken ill.

A global shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, visors and gloves is adding to pressures and worries. British healthcare workers have described the level of protection available to them as "not fit for purpose", and have warned that shortages of PPE are putting their lives at risk; some doctors in the UK have threatened to quit over the shortfall.


In France, meanwhile, a group of more than 600 doctors is suing a former heath minister and the current prime minister, who they accuse of failing to stockpile items such as PPE and test kits once the scale of the impending crisis become apparent.

Change is underway, however. Manufacturers around the globe are working to make masks, gloves and other supplies.

Furthermore, a number of promising initiatives could ease pressures for patients and healthcare systems alike. For instance, a new test could detect whether someone has developed antibodies to the coronavirus - which would mean they have been infected and are now immune.

Germany plans to roll out 100,000 of these new tests as soon as next month, and to issue ‘immunity certificates’ to those who test positive. The UK, meanwhile has ordered millions of tests, which could be "ready in days".

Such tools, however, can only ease the pressure on medical professionals and not eliminate it entirely. Until a cure can be developed the rest of us must relieve what pressure we can and take the only step available: to stay at home and reduce further transmissions.

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