SEATTLE, Washington — As of May 20, 2020, there are nearly 5 million cases of COVID-19 and over 300,000 deaths worldwide. This has placed an incredible burden on nations’ healthcare systems and disrupted livelihoods all over. However, there remain those brave individuals who continue to risk their lives daily to combat the pandemic. That is why it is essential that the world acknowledge the challenges faced by doctors on the frontlines of COVID-19 and what can be done to help.
Unequal Resources Mean Unequal Struggles
The grim consequence of income inequality in the developing world is especially evident in the healthcare sector. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization estimated that the world would need an additional 18 million health workers by 2030 to meet the needs of a growing global population, with low- and middle-income countries being the most impacted by the deficit. Now, the world is getting a glimpse of what awaits if that gap continues to grow.
Doctors in lower-income countries, already dealing with an overburdened healthcare system, now face a surge of new patients and a lack of resources to adequately treat them. In many cases, this places these doctors in an unenviable position. With a limited amount of ventilators available, for instance, they must be selective in how they choose to allocate them. This means essentially choosing which patients they think are most likely to survive, potentially dooming the others.
Distrust of the Government Often Extends to Health Workers
In many countries, widespread distrust of the government also presents its own difficulties for doctors. After all, healthcare systems rely on the government to both disseminate information and enact necessary measures in times of crisis. Yet, those who are already inclined to disbelieve government officials are unlikely to drop that wariness when it comes to health. If anything, the association between health workers and government action leads to that distrust being extended to doctors at large. Thus, many are slow or outright refuse to adopt measures to protect themselves from the virus.
It can also be difficult to impress the severity of COVID-19 on a population already in the midst of various health crises. Tuberculosis, Malaria and HIV/AIDS kill millions annually. For many in the developing world, the choice is not between addressing COVID-19 or ignoring it. Rather, it is between allocating already strained health resources to one deadly disease or another.
For Those in the Developing World, Health Advice Is Not One-Size Fits All
As a consequence of material conditions in low-income nations, much advice given on how to combat COVID-19 is impractical in the best case and infeasible at worst. In crowded cities or refugee camps, for example, social distancing is nearly impossible to implement. Shortages of medical equipment also mean that both health workers and civilians must frequently go without facemasks, making transmission of the virus that much more likely. As for hand washing, 35% of health facilities in the developing world do not have soap and water available.
Thus, health workers are increasingly having to resort to finding new methods to combat the virus. So far, the results are uneven. Measures like repurposing factories to manufacture medical gear and opening up hand-washing stations are being lauded for their effectiveness. Others, however, less so. Officials warn that strategies like creating safe havens for the elderly are ‘novel and untested’, while migration out of the cities and into rural communities potentially places those communities at risk.
Many have likened the fight against the virus to being in a state of war. Indeed, it is impossible to understate the bravery and ingenuity of health workers risking their lives to save others. However, they cannot do it alone. Much like in times of war, it will take a concerted international effort to bring an end to the crisis. That is why it is essential that the global community address the challenges and difficulties facing doctors on the frontlines of COVID-19.
– Elise Ghitman