Many of us have shown our gratitude to healthcare workers by giving them a round of applause as this pandemic has reminded us of the importance of proper access to healthcare. Unfortunately, applause and praise fall deaf to healthcare workers who fought for their lives in Intensive Care Units due to lack of proper personal protective equipment.
In April, healthcare workers in Victoria demanded appropriate PPE equipment but were forced to reuse their disposable gear, including N95 masks. In other cases they were asked to use a surgical mask instead of the necessary N95 masks.
In July, a shortage of PPE in Victoria resulted in some healthcare workers, particularly in aged care facilities, reusing plastic folders as face shields. In August, the ABC reported 1725 cases of healthcare workers testing positive for the virus in Victoria.
These workers contracted the virus in their workplaces. Facing long hours and the stress of dealing with the terrifying surge in COVID-19 cases, healthcare workers should not be unsafe, constantly worrying for the lives of themselves and their loved ones. They deserve and have a right to the basic minimums of workplace safety.
Amongst the three masks that are provided at healthcare workplaces, surgical, P2, and N95 masks, only P2 and N95 masks are able to filter 95% airborne particles, protecting the wearer from the environment.
Surgical masks, on the other hand, are designed to contain pathogens exhaled by the wearer, stopping a spread to the environment. However, they are not designed to protect the wearer from virus particles in the environment.
Surgical masks are appropriate for general public health and safety, particularly if physical distancing rules are followed. However, the wearer of surgical masks will still be exposed to any airborne pathogens, especially for healthcare workers who are working closely indoors with patients who have either tested positive or are suspected to have tested positive.
Healthcare workers in NSW are petitioning the managers at their respective workplaces to make P2 and N95 masks the new minimum standard for all healthcare staff, using the correlation between usage of personal protective equipment and the decline in number of infections in Victoria as proof.
They ask that their managers bypass the vague and inadequate standards set out by the Infection Control Expert Group (ICEG) stating that P2 and N95 masks are not required unless highly specialised procedures like intubation are involved. The ICEG is responsible for advising Australian Health Authorities on infection prevention and regulatory requirements and measures.
The panel is currently composed of a group of 17 people who are professors and health consultants, none of whom are currently working as healthcare workers. This also contradicts the advice given by Safe Work Australia which advises that essential workers should be provided with appropriate personal protective equipment at all times.
Firstly, it is absurd that an organisation that claims expertise in crisis management does not have workers who are directly involved in the crisis on the panel. Workers should decide how operations are run because of the immediate impact on themselves. Distribution of PPE should be controlled by health workers themselves.
Secondly, workers who have put their lives on their line for everyone else should have their demands met immediately. We are now clearly past requesting for workers to be heard.
Shortages of necessary personal protective equipment was predicted around the world in pre-pandemic simulations and planning. The excuse that this took everyone by surprise doesn’t wash.
Fundamentally the problem lies with the fragmented and chaotic system of producing and distributing goods under capitalism. In this sick system goods like face masks are only produced to make profit for capitalists, not because they are essential for health and safety. What we need is production and distribution driven by human need not capitalist greed.
But you can’t control what you don’t own, so it’s necessary to bring the production of vital medical supplies including face masks into public hands and cut out the parasitic capitalists. On that basis democratic plans can be drawn up to ramp up production, distribute supplies rapidly and build adequate stockpiles for future shocks.
We should show our gratitude to healthcare workers by joining them in their struggle for demand for better working environments and proper PPE equipment.
By Bella Singal