Amnesty International raises alarm over death of 3,000 health workers

Amnesty International

*Insists govts must be held accountable

By Ukpono Ukpong, Abuja

Amnesty International has said that governments must be held accountable for the fates of over 3,000 health workers known to have died from COVID-19 worldwide.

According to a statement by the Media Manager, Amnesty International Nigeria, Isa Sanusi, the figure as contained in a new report documenting the experiences of health workers around the world is likely to be significantly underestimated.

Lamenting that there is currently no systematic global tracking of how many health and essential workers have died after contracting COVID-19, regrettably, Amnesty’s Researcher and Advisor on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Sanhita Ambast, said it has documented cases where health workers who raised safety concerns in the context of the COVID-19 response have faced retaliation, ranging from arrest and detention to threats and dismissal.

“Governments must be held accountable for the deaths of health and essential workers who they have failed to protect from COVID-19. The organization’s analysis of available data has revealed that more than 3000 health workers are known to have died from COVID-19 worldwide.

“The overall figure is likely to be a significant underestimate due to under-reporting, while accurate comparisons across countries are difficult due to differences in counting.

For example, France has collected data from just some of its hospitals and health centres, while figures of deceased health workers provided by health associations in Egypt and Russia have been contested by their governments.

“With the COVID-19 pandemic still accelerating around the world, we are urging governments to start taking health and essential workers’ lives seriously.

Countries yet to see the worst of the pandemic must not repeat the mistakes of governments whose failure to protect workers’ rights has had devastating consequences.

“It is especially disturbing to see that some governments are punishing workers who voice their concerns about working conditions that may threaten their lives.

Health workers on the frontline are the first to know if government policy is not working, and authorities who silence them cannot seriously claim to be prioritising public health.”

According to Amnesty’s monitoring, the countries with the highest numbers of health worker deaths thus far include the USA (507), Russia (545), UK (540, including 262 social care workers), Brazil (351), Mexico (248), Italy (188), Egypt (111), Iran (91), Ecuador (82) and Spain (63).

Pointedly, Ambast revealed that health workers have reported serious shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) in nearly all of the 63 countries and territories surveyed by Amnesty.

They include countries which may yet to see the worst of the pandemic, such as India and Brazil and several across Africa. A doctor working in Mexico City told Amnesty that doctors were spending about 12% of their monthly salaries buying their own PPE.

“In addition to a global shortage of supply, trade restrictions may have aggravated this problem. In June 2020, 56 countries and two trade blocs (the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union) had put in place measures to either ban or restrict the export of some, or all, forms of PPE or its components.

“While states must ensure there is sufficient PPE for workers within their territories, trade restrictions risk exacerbating shortages in countries that are dependent on imports. The COVID-19 pandemic is a global problem that requires global cooperation.” said Ambast.

Ambast disclosed that in at least 31 of the countries surveyed by Amnesty, researchers recorded reports of strikes, threatened strikes, or protests, by health and essential workers as a result of unsafe working conditions, stressing that in many nations, such actions were met with reprisals from authorities.

“In Egypt, for example, Amnesty documented the cases of nine health care workers who were arbitrarily detained between March and June on vague and overly broad charges of “spreading false news” and “terrorism”. All those detained had expressed safety concerns or criticized the government’s handling of the pandemic.

“Another Egyptian doctor told Amnesty International that doctors who speak out are subjected to threats, interrogations by the National Security Agency (NSA), administrative questioning, and penalties.

He said “Many (doctors) are preferring to pay for their own personal equipment to avoid this exhausting back and forth. The authorities are forcing doctors to choose between death and jail.

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“In Malaysia for example, police dispersed a peaceful protest against a hospital cleaning services company. The protesters’ complaints centred around what they said was the unfair treatment of union members by the company as well as a lack of sufficient protection for hospital cleaners.

Police arrested, detained and charged five health care workers who were protesting for “unauthorized gathering” in violation of their rights to freedom of association and assembly.

“Health and essential workers have a right to raise their voices against unfair treatment. Health workers can help governments improve their response to the pandemic and keep everyone safe – but they can’t do this if they are in prison, and they can’t do it if they are afraid to speak up,” Ambast added.

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