Covid nurse death toll now as high as the number of nurses who died during World War One

Lack of proper data on deaths among healthcare workers a ‘scandal’, says international nursing chief

Tim Wyatt
Saturday 31 October 2020 10:59
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Coronavirus in numbers

As many nurses have now died from coronavirus than were killed during the entirety of the First World War, the International Council of Nurses (ICN) has revealed.

The latest figures collated by the federation of 130 national nurses’ associations show that 1,500 nurses have lost their lives since the pandemic began around the world.

This is the same as the number of nurses believed to have been killed during the four years of World War One

However, the ICN expects the figure of 1,500 to be a significant underestimate, as it only includes those who have died in 44 countries where data was available.  

“The fact that as many nurses have died during this pandemic as died during World War I is shocking”, the federation’s chief executive Howard Catton said during an online conference earlier this week.

“Since May 2020 we have been calling for the standardised and systematic collection of data on healthcare worker infections and deaths, and the fact that is still not happening is a scandal.”

Separate analysis of global infection rates by the ICN suggests at least 20,000 healthcare workers have died in total from Covid, although this is only an extrapolation as concrete numbers do not exist.

Mr Catton said Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing who was born 200 years ago this year, would have been angry at how little effort was being made to properly catalogue the toll the pandemic is taking on healthcare workers.  

“2020 is the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife, and the 200th anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth, and I am sure she would have been immensely saddened and angry about this lack of data - I know I am.

“Florence demonstrated during the Crimean War how the collection and analysis of data can improve our understanding of risks to health, improve clinical practices and save lives, and that includes nurses and healthcare workers.  

“If she were alive today, world leaders would have her voice ringing in their ears saying they must protect our nurses. There is a chasm between the warm words and accolades, and the action that needs to be taken.”

When the coronavirus crisis does finally come to an end, nurses must be at the forefront of rebuilding a better global health system, he added.  

“When this is over, we must never take our health systems for granted again, and we must invest much more heavily in them and our health workers.

“Nurses are angry about the lack of preparedness, but they are also angry about the lack of support that they have received.”

In the UK, some nurses are warning the NHS must adapt its approach for the coming second wave of coronavirus.  

Jess Moorhouse, an intensive care nurse who worked in the London Nightingale emergency hospital through its operational life, said ratios of nurses to critically ill patients had to be improved.  

In normal times, there is one nurse for every patient in intensive care, but in the Nightingale this fell to one nurse for every six patients, she explained in an article for the Royal College of Nursing’s (RCN) magazine.  

If this cannot be improved upon during a second surge, nurses will need to be trained to manage teams of clinicians and to delegate tasks, rather than solely focusing on practical nursing of patients, she argued.  

People wearing a face mask walk near a mural of a nurse in the Northern Quarter of Manchester

Furthermore, the burden on nurses will be even greater as the NHS does not intend to cancel all non-Covid treatment as it did during the first lockdown.  

The RCN is calling for not only more nurses trained for critical care, but also a 12.5% pay rise for the profession, arguing the pandemic has shown how essential nursing is.  

“The Covid-19 crisis has given the government an historic opportunity to right some wrongs on how nursing is valued,” said the college’s chief executive Donna Kinnair. “For many years, our pay hasn’t reflected our worth. It is time for nursing staff to be paid fairly.”

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