Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 29 May 2020

A case for treating everyone with compassion, especially healthcare staff

It is not only the physical suffering they’re heroically enduring, healthcare workers need psychological support too

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed praised healthcare workers last week during his virtual Ramadan Majlis and on Twitter, describing them as the embodiment of mercy and compassion.

“As we celebrate World Nurses Day, we salute our front line that faces the pandemic bravely. We pay tribute to them here in the UAE and the world.

“Their role is essential, and the sacrifice is great. They are truly the embodiment of mercy and compassion,” he said.

The English word compassion derives from the Latin compati, meaning to suffer with or suffer together. When we act compassionately we help ease the burdens of other beings.

Healthcare workers around the globe are alleviating the suffering of Covid-19 patients. As a consequence, they too, are suffering, embodying compassion in the original and truest sense of the word.

To understand the risks that healthcare workers and their families face, we only have to glance at the number of Covid-19 infections among them.

Oxford University’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine estimated healthcare workers may account for up to 30 per cent of all British infections. This is a group that makes up only six per cent of the UK workforce.

Nurse Layla Bridges cares for a premature baby in the neonatal intensive care unit at the Lancashire Women and Newborn Centre at Burnley General Hospital, north-west England on May 15. AFP
Nurse Layla Bridges cares for a premature baby in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Burnley General Hospital, north-west England on May 15. AFP

In one UK accident and emergency department, at Royal Gwent Hospital in Wales, almost half of employees tested positive for Covid-19. In Spain, as of March 25, there were 47,600 total cases of which 6,500 were in medical staff.

The psychological costs may be just as high and are likely to last long after the pandemic has passed

In short, 13.6 per cent of all cases were from a group that makes up only one per cent of the workforce. Last week, the International Council of Nurses proposed that at least 90,000 healthcare workers worldwide had been infected.

The ICN also suggested the actual figure might be twice as high, given that several nations have not yet reported the relevant data.

The high rate of infection among healthcare workers illustrates only the physical suffering that is being heroically endured.

The psychological costs may be equally high and are likely to last long after the pandemic has passed.

Nurse Kirsty Hartley carries premature baby Theo Anderson to his mother Kirsty Anderson in the neonatal intensive care unit at Lancashire Women and Newborn Centre at Burnley General Hospital, north-west England, on May 15. AFP
Neonatal nurse Kirsty Hartley carries premature baby Theo Anderson to his mother Kirsty Anderson in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Burnley General Hospital, Burnley, north-west England, on May 15. AFP

For evidence of this, we can look at the global outbreak in 2002-2004 of Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome). Many researchers have called Sars the first pandemic of the 21st century – some also described it as a “mental health catastrophe”.

Numerous studies point to elevated levels of depression, post-traumatic stress and substance abuse among healthcare workers who treated Sars patients.

The same, of course, was true for patients who survived Sars, even years after full recovery from the virus. Furthermore, a study published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry reported a link between elevated rates of suicide among Hong Kong’s elderly and the Sars outbreak.

Consider that global Sars cases numbered 8,098 with 774 deaths. Covid-19 stands at about 4.7 million cases, with more than 315,000 deaths.

There is a clear and present need for psychological support for healthcare workers, for those directly affected by the Covid-19 and for the public at large.

The UAE pre-emptively responded to this need back in 2016, when it appointed a Minister of State for Happiness.

This appointment underscored the UAE’s commitment to psychological wellness. During the unfolding of the Covid-19 pandemic, the UAE’s National Programme for Happiness and Well-being has launched numerous supportive initiatives, including the national campaign for mental support.

This project mainly involves connecting the general public with mental health specialists and through the innovative use of social media. I am honoured to have been involved in this programme and to have helped in some small way.

There is, however, much more to do if we are to avert a post-pandemic mental health catastrophe.

If compassion makes things better, then cruelty and unkindness make things worse. Unfortunately, the example of our compassionate healthcare workers is not being emulated by all.

Earlier this month, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the coronavirus pandemic was unleashing “a tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scaremongering”.

Referencing the rise in pandemic-related hate speech and hate crimes, the UN chief called for actions that “strengthen the immunity of our societies against the virus of hate”.

Last week Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Tolerance, addressed the Prayer for Humanity session. This global initiative was an online meeting of religious leaders coming together to show mutual respect during this global crisis.

If tolerance and compassion towards ourselves and each other will help us through this trying time, it is these same qualities that will help us minimise the psychological after-effects of this pandemic.

Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University

Updated: May 18, 2020 03:19 PM

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