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Protecting the healthcare workforce from COVID-19


An international, interdisciplinary research team from British Columbia, Canada and across South Africa, supported by IDRC and working in partnership with two World Health Organization collaborating centres, contributed insights to a multi-methods research program about what works to protect healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic (and in which contexts, using which mechanisms, to achieve which outcomes).

The research team conducted qualitative and quantitative studies focused on the psychological and physical protection of healthcare workers in South Africa and in Canada. The work in South Africa demonstrated that training and preventive initiatives can reduce workplace stress. In the Canadian setting, the team also found that frontline care aides were the most likely to be infected and least likely to be vaccinated. In South Africa, as elsewhere in the Global South, many health facilities had high levels of unacceptable risk from workplace organizational hazards, including violence and bullying, as well as the infectious disease risk. They were not prepared to protect healthcare workers. In Canada, research showed that rigorously adopting combined public health, infection control and occupational health measures can indeed protect healthcare workers, with rates of COVID-19 infection no higher than for counterparts in community settings.

Using a convenience survey of healthcare workers in 161 countries allowed the research team to further explore various contexts. The presence of unacceptable risk was clearly identified in all countries, but it was striking that the strongest concern about inadequate protection of healthcare workers came not from the high-income countries hit most intensely by the initial wave of COVID-19 in early 2020, but rather from less well-resourced settings that had yet to be as strongly affected. This vividly echoes pre-COVID findings that resource-poor countries have decreased capacities for protecting healthcare workers.

Working through a North-South partnership enabled a triangulated assessment of how contextual factors may affect mechanisms and outcomes for worker protection. Adding to the global evidence on protecting healthcare workers from COVID-19, these results highlight the value of international partnerships.