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Nursing after COVID-19: the long-term impact of our high-profile role

Stark images during the pandemic have dispelled old myths and stereotypes about nurses

Stark images during the pandemic have dispelled old myths and stereotypes about nurses

The face of a nurse in PPE is captured by a mural artist Picture: Alamy

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way the public perceives nurses, and that must be a good thing.

But while it will be good to see the back of unhelpful myths and stereotypes, it must lead to a greater understanding of the profession based on what nurses do, rather than the uniforms we wear, our gender or the colour of our skin.

The comforting images of nurses in traditional uniforms, which used to dominate any media coverage of nursing, have been replaced by pictures of intensive care nurses in hazmat suits, and exhausted nurses with hours of wearing hot and uncomfortable personal

Stark images during the pandemic have dispelled old myths and stereotypes about nurses

The face of a nurse in PPE is captured by a mural artist Picture: Alamy

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way the public perceives nurses, and that must be a good thing.

But while it will be good to see the back of unhelpful myths and stereotypes, it must lead to a greater understanding of the profession based on what nurses do, rather than the uniforms we wear, our gender or the colour of our skin.

The comforting images of nurses in traditional uniforms, which used to dominate any media coverage of nursing, have been replaced by pictures of intensive care nurses in hazmat suits, and exhausted nurses with hours of wearing hot and uncomfortable personal protective equipment (PPE) etched on to their careworn faces.

It is a new reality, and it is no bad thing that the public is becoming more aware of the challenges, complexity and hardships of everyday nursing during this terrible pandemic.

Arresting images of nurses reveal the harsh working conditions they often face

All stereotypes are to some extent based on reality, and of course many nurses are still wearing traditional nursing uniforms and providing comfort and care for the people they are looking after, and long may that continue.

But the stark images we have been seeing from around the world tell a bigger story of what nurses do, and the sometimes difficult conditions in which they do it.

At the International Council of Nurses (ICN) we are in contact with nurses from around the world and we hear first-hand about the struggles they are facing.

In some countries, nurses are caring for patients who have COVID-19 without access to running water.

‘What has shone through in all of this is the breadth of caring, compassion and courage nurses have exhibited, and the knowledge and expertise they have at their fingertips’

Some do not have any PPE, or have been given fake PPE that does not work. Others are coping with one pair of single-use gloves and a paper mask.

Some are fortunate to have always had access to the best equipment, medications and support that they need to provide the highest quality care.

And some are facing discrimination, stigma and even violence, as frightened members of their communities react to them as if they are carriers of the disease, rather than carers.

All nurses working in the pandemic need support to help them cope with the raw emotions that inevitably arise when dealing with new, upsetting and stressful caring situations.

What has shone through in all of this is the breadth of caring, compassion and courage that nurses have exhibited, and the knowledge and expertise they have at their fingertips.

We’ve been gathering and sharing intelligence on the plight of nurses in many countries

ICN is passing on information from its 130-plus national nursing associations, and individual associations are working together to provide help as much as they can.

‘The world is short of nearly six million nurses, and we must find a way to ensure the pipeline of new recruits continues to flow’

A report from Amnesty International cited our work and highlighted, as we have, how nurses and other healthcare workers have been targeted during the pandemic and not been afforded the protection they deserve.

In recent weeks, ICN has written to a number of heads of state expressing our concern about the treatment meted out to nurses during the pandemic: some nurses in Africa have not been paid for months, and some authorities in Latin America have not taken seriously the plight of nurses, including one group who were subjected to a series of horrendous sustained assaults.

This is a new situation and we are all learning how it is going to affect us individually and as a profession, now and in the future.

We need to use increased awareness of what nurses do to expand the global workforce

Clearly the public’s improved understanding of what nurses actually do will help to bust unhelpful myths and bury the stereotypes, and that is positive.

But the world is short of nearly six million nurses, and we must find a way to ensure the pipeline of new recruits to the profession continues to flow.

We have seen that in some countries people are responding to the images they see of nurses dealing with the pandemic by wanting to join our ranks.

But I have also heard from places where the opposite is true: this is not because people do not want to become nurses, but because they see how hard it can be to be exposed to such risks without adequate support and investment from governments.

An honest portrayal of the profession will attract people who understand what they are getting into, and that can only be a good thing.

But this could go either way, so it is essential that the change in the public’s perception of nurses is accompanied by practical actions from governments to secure the next generation to carry on the work of the present one.


Howard Catton

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