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Support for frontline staff and volunteers is key to overcoming Europe’s fresh COVID onslaught

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In many ways, Europe is far better placed to withstand its second pandemic winter. Though cases are surging across the continent and the new Omicron variant has sparked fresh concerns, many countries have succeeded in somewhat decoupling case numbers from hospitalizations and deaths through the widespread rollout of highly effective vaccines. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has already recommended one antiviral drug, Merck’s molnupiravir, for emergency use and is considering Pfizer’s promising pill, something which could ease the burden on the hospitals still further. There’s a fundamental problem, however—the frontline workers and volunteers who have provided vital services during the pandemic are disillusioned and worn out. 

According to the European Federation of Nurses, roughly a third of nurses have left the profession altogether during the pandemic; in some countries such as Ireland, some seven out of 10 doctors are at high risk of burnout. Evidence from Singapore has suggested that it’s a similar situation for community volunteers, who are pulling the plug on their charitable activities amidst demotivation and overwhelming physical and mental fatigue.

With the WHO recently warning that the coronavirus may be with us for years to come, better recognizing and supporting those who have made a vital contribution to society during the pandemic will be essential to surmounting future waves of the disease.

‘We are Together’: Prize celebrates the commitment to tackling humanitarian challenges

One of the myriad issues pushing healthcare workers and volunteers to the brink of burnout is a perceived lack of acknowledgement and recognition for their valiant efforts. As one nurse explained, she was willing to stay in the field despite the extreme stress of nursing during the coronavirus pandemic, but she was finally pushed to quit after feeling that neither her patients nor the hospital administrators acknowledged the tremendous burden she was shouldering.

The “We Are Together” prize, awarded at the #MYVMESTE forum in Moscow on December 5 (International Volunteer Day) and organized by Russia’s Association of Volunteer Centers (AVC) alongside international partners including the United Nations Volunteers programme and the International Association for Volunteer Effort, offers one clear example of how to encourage and support those individuals, NGOs and members of the business community who’ve made an important contribution to the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. 

The prize, which was backed by a total grant purse of $120,000, celebrated those who had pioneered innovative and collaborative solutions for solving the global challenges which have proliferated during the pandemic. While the “We Are Together” prize celebrated traditional frontline workers such as representatives of the medical community, it also recognised those who’d made a difference through initiatives such as cooking hot meals for those in difficulty amidst the coronavirus outbreak or providing logistical and psychological assistance to Covid-positive patients and people in quarantine. 

This year’s We are Together prize recognized twelve projects from all over the world, from Azerbaijan to Thailand. As Derek Ray-Hill, the Director of International Strategy and Corporate Services at the Charities Aid Foundation explained: “The ‘We Are Together’ Prize has really gained momentum over the last couple of years when we have all become increasingly aware of our common humanity. The prize encourages innovative and ambitious solutions to the world’s significant humanitarian issues, and in doing so, brings us all together to accelerate progress in a global society. It complements our work at Charities Aid Foundation, as we collaborate across sectors and borders to inspire innovation, share best practices and improve cross border giving to advance our shared future.” 

Regulatory boons for frontline workers

The UAE, meanwhile, has gone to substantial lengths to ensure that those who’ve battled the pandemic are rewarded for their efforts. The Emirates is issuing long-term Golden Visas to eligible frontline workers, as well as their families, and has even established a “Frontline Heroes Office” (FHO) to oversee the UAE’s gestures of gratitude towards the healthcare professionals and other frontline workers (such as housekeeping and cleaning staff). 

The FHO has already rolled out a range of initiatives to celebrate and incentivise frontline workers, including providing them with upgraded medical insurance and partnering with flag carrier Etihad to offer frontline workers discounted flights, preferential check-in and free excess baggage. One of the latest measures has given scholarships to roughly 1850 children of frontline workers, in order to reduce the financial stress their parents face and ensure the retention of these vital workers.

Time for Europe to take note

As Europe’s fifth coronavirus wave sweeps across the continent, governments would be wise to implement similar schemes in order to boost the badly dented morale of frontline workers and show appreciation for their sacrifices. Despite the scientific advances making it easier to prevent and treat Covid-19, the task some frontline workers are facing is harder than ever. Medical professionals have warned that, as vaccination rates tick up in Europe, the hospitals are becoming disproportionately filled with staunch anti-vaxxers, many of whom are highly aggressive even towards the doctors and nurses trying to treat them, accusing them of being “killers” and parroting conspiracy theories.

This pressure is clearly having an effect—some 1300 nurses have quit their jobs over the past few months in France, and available ICU beds are going unused in Germany because burnout has led to a shortage of specialised staff. The President of DIVI, the German Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine summed it all up when he declared: “We urgently need a clear and unambiguous signal that people appreciate what we do […] these are people who in tough times have made their contribution, helped others, done their bit”.

Other countries have offered examples of such signals—prizes recognising outstanding contributions to fighting the virus, beneficial visa regimes for frontline workers or measures to ease their financial burden. Europe should not hesitate to follow suit.

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