Rome — Doctors, nurses and healthcare workers have become the unwitting heroes of the coronavirus pandemic, winning applause from balconies and streets around the world.
From Yaounde to Rome to New York, the pandemic has infected more than 1.9 million people and claimed 118,000 lives.
Hospital workers are dealing with a huge influx of patients, while also facing a lack of equipment in many cases and the fear of becoming infected themselves. Often, they face heartbreaking decisions while treating their patients.
AFP journalists spoke to healthcare workers around the world to find out what it’s really like to be on the frontline in the coronavirus pandemic.
In Italy, one of the worst affected countries, dozens of doctors and nurses have died from COVID-19 and thousands of healthcare workers have become infected.
Silvana de Florio, nursing coordinator in the COVID-19 intensive care unit of the Tor Vergata Hospital in Rome, underlined the importance of being appropriately kitted out with masks, visors, gloves, scrubs and suits to avoid contagion.
“We don’t set aside a specific amount of time for it, but we have estimated that for a seven-hour shift, about 40-50 minutes is spent just on getting dressed,” she said.
“In terms of hand washing and hand decontamination, we are talking about 60-75 minutes per day,” she said after scolding a care worker for not wearing a mask.
“Medical staff can’t get sick — not so much because of their ability to work, but because it would not be fair.” In the Pacific port city of Guayaquil in Ecuador, a sick nurse makes no attempt to hide her anger: 80 of her colleagues have been infected and five have already died.
Ecuador is one of the worst affected countries in South America, with hundreds of dead bodies lying inside homes because the morgues are full.
“We went to war without any weapons,” said the 55-year-old nurse, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The necessary equipment was not ready when this (the pandemic) was already happening, devastating Europe,” said the nurse, who is resting at home as there is no space in the hospitals.
Patients with “severe symptoms” were arriving at her emergency department, “but due to a lack of tests, they were treated as if they had the flu and sent home.” “We had no personal protective equipment (PPE) but we could not refuse to treat the patients,” she said.
In the United States, Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, president of the New York State Nurses Association, also complained about the lack of protective gear for medical workers.
“We don’t have the arms and the armour to protect ourselves against the enemy,” she said at a recent protest outside a hospital.
Benny Mathew, a 43-year-old nurse in New York, said he caught the virus after caring for at least four patients without adequate medical dress.
Not long afterwards, when his fever had subsided, the hospital asked him to come back to work.
“They told me if you don’t have fever you can come on work — that was their only criteria,” he said.
“I was told to wear a mask and come to work. We don’t have enough staff so I think it was my duty to come back.
“But I was worried that I was going to transmit the disease to my coworkers, to the patients who don’t already have it,” he added.
With more than 195,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and around 10,000 deaths, New York state is the epicentre of the pandemic in the US, the worst affected country so far.
The doctors at Manila’s San Lazaro hospital, a specialist centre for infectious diseases, are used to battling humanity’s nastiest contagions — but they’ve never seen anything like COVID-19.
Suspected coronavirus cases have died at triage, terrified patients grow outraged when they can’t get tested immediately and the doctors have to manage the anxiety they could be carriers too.
“It’s a living nightmare,” said doctor Ferdinand de Guzman, who at 60 years old is himself in a high-risk group.