Stepping up elderly care in Coronavirus pandemic times

Thursday 19 March 2020

As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the continent, so too are measures to contain its spread. While elderly people are among those most reliant on social contact, they are also those most at risk from the deadly virus. Increasingly, nursing home workers and other care workers are their lifeline.

Safe care workers save lives

Keeping risk levels down requires that workers be provided the tools to ensure a safe environment. In this time of need, that means improvements in equipment, in human resources and in precautionary contagion measures. Respiratory masks, medical sanitisers and guaranteed access to self-isolation are tried and tested examples of such measures.

Global figures indicate a death rate for people aged 80 and over of approximately 15% and early analysis of cases in Italy showed that those who died had an average age of 81. New procedures are required to ensure their safety. Staff need time to be able to perform them correctly. That requires more hands on deck and training to ensure they are up to date and can raise their questions.

Unions have been highlighting the need for these health and safety improvements. In many cases they have worked with employers to raise concrete concerns and find solutions. In Poland, Neuca Med led by example when they responded by providing increased protective equipment to all their homecare workers.

Serial offender: Orpea

Workers at various sites of multinational corporation Orpea have been highlighting equipment shortages and dangerous levels of understaffing. One experienced nurse resigned from an Orpea nursing home in Poland after only three shifts over concerns that it was impossible to apply safety protocols due to lack of equipment and human resources.

“Yet again, we are seeing Orpea drive down conditions in the care sector. That in this time of crisis, when we know elderly people are most at risk, they refuse to give their workers the tools to ensure patient safety, frankly it’s negligent,” said Oliver Roethig, Regional Secretary of UNI Europa.

In Belgium, Orpea staff had initiated strike action to demand safe staffing levels and adequate equipment until the country went into lockdown when authorities prohibited the strike. While the nursing home workers are expected to continue working, their concerns remain unaddressed.

“Taking extra care takes extra time. The important measures governments are taking can’t mean that corporations get a free pass to continue putting people in danger. Care workers are now at the forefront of COVID-19 contagion efforts. They need resources that measure up to their contributions,” said Oliver Roethig.

Stepping it up and building resilience

Unions in Poland have captured the stark contrast in two approaches. The first, at Neuca Med, is based on mutual respect and a commitment to safety. The second, at Orpea, is based on cutting corners and driving profit at all costs.

This distinction plays out across the continent. Countries where workers have been able to raise their concerns and have them addressed are showing better resilience to this healthcare shock. Collective bargaining structures, from the workplace to the national level, have played a decisive role in bolstering containment efforts and in establishing context-specific measures that ensure working people can play their part in saving lives.

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*Photo credit: sima dimitric (CC BY 2.0)

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