UNICEF helps to keep health workers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic

“When I am protected, I feel safe but when I see a reduction in supplies, I worry a lot because if we don’t have the protective gear, we get exposed,”

By Proscovia Nakibuuka Mbonye
personal protective equipment, health workers, covid-19, covid19, coronavirus, Uganda, health worker protection
UNICEF Uganda/2020/Sibiloni
31 August 2020

Heroic, brave and working round the clock to provide essential health care services during the COVID-19 pandemic, health workers need to be protected so that they are safe while on duty. 

In Uganda, as community transmission of COVID-19 and related deaths continue to rise, health facilities are taking additional precautionary measures to protect health workers and patients.

In Rukunyu Hospital in Kamwenge District, face masks are mandatory for patients and attendants accessing the facility; they also have their temperature taken at the entrance and need to wash their hands at a washing station located right beside the main gate. Without a mask, a person is turned back.

personal protective equipment, health workers, covid-19, covid19, coronavirus, Uganda, health worker protection
UNICEF Uganda/2020/Sibiloni

The handwashing facilities positioned at critical points in the facility have been provided by UNICEF with financial aid from UKaid, as part of the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) supply consignment delivered in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic was declared.

Activities at the hospital have never stopped despite the crisis. On average, the facility attends to about 3,500 people a month. With these large numbers, one only wonders how the health workers are managing to keep safe during the pandemic.

Are they safe? Do they feel safe? What motivates them to continue working despite the risks?

Before COVID-19, health workers did not have the necessary protection to perform their duties as confirmed by Philip Limlim, the UNICEF Chief of the Western Zonal Office.

“Health workers and frontline staff lacked the necessary protective gear while examining patients, which caused a lot of fear and anxiety among them. It created a very big gap in providing critical health services during the pandemic.”

To address the gap, UNICEF supplied personal protective equipment to ensure the safety of all workers in health facilities at the forefront of the pandemic. In addition, health facilities have also received detergents, chlorine, handwashing stations, soap, and hand sanitizers for infection prevention and control, thanks to UNICEF support. 

“With provision of the protective equipment, the confidence of the health workers has improved and they are now available to provide the much-needed services,”

Philip added.

A quick glance around the hospital compound and all workers in sight – cleaners, porters and health workers – are wearing protective gear. They have masks and aprons on and will grab a pair of gloves whenever they are in contact with patients. The cleaners have heavy duty gloves and gum boots to support their work. 

Frontline workers in the maternity ward

The health workers in the maternity ward are very busy. In the month of July alone, they supported a total of 235 deliveries. We meet Sister Monica Murungi, the area manager of the maternity department and a midwife. She oversees the maternity ward and the postnatal and antenatal care clinics at the facility, and supervises 32 midwives. She confirms that the priority right now is the safety of her staff, herself and their patients.

When asked how she ensures her staff are safe, Sister Monica says, “Every morning I move from ward to ward distributing masks, providing sanitizers at every station and checking if the handwashing facilities are functional and have chlorinated water. I then provide them with COVID-19 related updates before encouraging them to enhance precautionary measures. I remind them to frequently sanitize their work stations and maintain social distancing despite the overwhelming number of patients and attendants.”

personal protective equipment, health workers, covid-19, covid19, coronavirus, Uganda, health worker protection
UNICEF Uganda/2020/Sibiloni

She also holds daily health talks with her staff to remind them of the dangers and the precautions to be taken. 

Patients are also taken through sessions on COVID-19 and encouraged to weak masks before entering the ward. Handwashing stations with chlorinated water are positioned right outside the ward and in the ward for use by patients, attendants and health workers. 

“From the gate, we make sure people enter with masks on and when they come in, they have to wash their hands with chlorinated water,” says Sister Monica.

In the delivery room, hygiene is of utmost importance. In here, the health workers mix granulated chlorine provided by UNICEF to clean the surface and floors and disinfect the delivery equipment. Sister Monica oversees all this to ensure that no baby is delivered in an unsafe place and that mothers stay safe. 

At the antenatal care clinic, mothers sit apart from each other and they all have masks. As Sister Monica talks to them about the importance of antenatal care, she is quick to remind them about the need to protect themselves from the deadly disease – COVID-19. She shares that before COVID-19, the hospital designated two days in a week for antenatal care clinics and that attendance numbers were large. Today, they conduct daily clinics with no more than 20 mothers per session. This has greatly reduced congestion and supported social distancing. All these new measures have been put in place to protect both patients and health workers.

Sister Monica’s fears during COVID-19 as a frontline worker

Despite the zeal and enthusiasm that Sister Monica exhibits during her work, she has her fears. The mother of four, who sees her family every two weeks, is worried that with the laxity among some patients, COVID-19 will slowly close in. “I fear for my family too. When I return home, I first have a bath before I embrace my children.”

However, with the provision of protective equipment and the WASH supplies, Sister Monica and her team feel safe and are determined more than ever to work as long as they are protected. 

“When I am protected, I feel safe but when I see a reduction in supplies, I worry a lot because if we don’t have the protective gear, we get exposed,” she says.

It has been hours but Sister Monica is still on her feet moving from one ward to another. As she conducts a breastfeeding session for new mothers, she shares that “Despite the daily exposure and risks involved in my job, I love to serve, so I will die for my people.”

“Health workers have risked their lives even without protection to provide services to patients before when they didn’t know their status. For me, they are heroes,” says Phillip, the UNICEF Chief of the Western Zonal Office.