Eighteen months since Australia recorded its first COVID-19 case, frontline health workers say the system is “on the brink”. Underfunding and under planning for the pandemic are two critical problems.
Health workers, even those not yet fully trained, are being asked to take on huge responsibilities.
Maya* has been working as an assistant in nursing (AIN) since January last year: her career has been defined by COVID-19 and she has seen first-hand the pressure it is putting on the underfunded public health system and on workers.
Maya works in a testing clinic in Sydney, swabbing hundreds of people for COVID-19 every day. She has also worked in quarantine hotels.
She told Green Left that the lockdown in Sydney has been “very difficult”.
“When I started working as a COVID swabber it was during the Northern Beaches outbreak last November. Despite all the workers being unvaccinated at the time, we had a good set-up and were swabbing about 1000 people a day.”
However, since the Delta variant hit Sydney in June, Maya said the job had become much more difficult.
“It has been incredibly busy; the whole environment has changed. I have been working six days a week because we are so understaffed … I stepped into a decision-making role because, even though I am still studying and am not a fully qualified nurse, I had the most experience.
“Delta is much worse; we have had positive cases in the workforce, which means even less staff are available because they have to stay home and isolate. We have been forced to take nurses from other wards that are already stretched.”
Maya has also been at the receiving end of verbal and physical abuse from patients taking out their frustrations about government decisions.
“Once mandatory testing was introduced for essential workers, we have been swabbing about 1500 every day. Unfortunately, patients have also become a lot more hostile since then.”
The anti-lockdown protests are an ongoing frustration for workers like Maya who feel their efforts are “going to waste”.
“It feels like a slap in the face. We are all pulling overtime and working in horrible conditions, putting our own health at risk to keep the community safe and some people think it’s more important for them to be able to get a haircut.
“We have had patients coming in [who are] not wearing masks properly, or telling us they have come from the protests. It is very frustrating and upsetting.
“To patients, we are the government. Sometimes it is difficult to get them to trust us with their personal information … I feel like I need to remind them I work for NSW Health, not Gladys [Berejiklian].”
As one of the only permanent swabbers, Maya has had to train staff from other areas in infection control while also processing huge numbers of people through the clinic.
The staff shortages have meant that inexperienced nurses, like Maya, are taking on critical roles. This is despite her pay remaining at the very low $23 per hour base rate.
“I never intended to work more than four days a week while studying. But chronic understaffing means I have to work six days a week; I have to prioritise [work] over university.”
Thousands of nurses across the country have been put in the same position.
Maya said that a large proportion of those currently studying nursing will be unable to graduate without completing in-person workshops and laboratory classes that have been cancelled due to COVID-19 lockdowns. This could compound staffing issues.
Maya said the public health system is at breaking point with intensive care units being filled with COVID-19 patients.
“We have closed off all the elective surgery wards and our beds are all taken. I don’t know how hospitals would deal with another mutation to the virus, particularly if it makes the current vaccines ineffective. That would be the worst-case scenario.”
Looking to the future, Maya is hopeful but realistic. “We need to get as many people vaccinated as possible because COVID-19 will be around forever.”
She said the federal “roadmap” out of lockdown is probably too optimistic, but she is glad vaccination is being encouraged.
While the fight against COVID-19 is difficult for frontline health-care workers, Maya said “the community of nurses look after each other” and this is what “has made it much more bearable”.
[Maya* is a pseudonym.]