As an unprecedented pandemic sweeps the world, methods of dealing with the public health crisis across the globe differ – some countries, like Spain and Italy, have implemented lockdowns so severe that residents aren’t even allowed out for a walk, while others such as Sweden take a more relaxed approach.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Sweden has resisted lockdowns, unlike its neighbours Denmark and Norway. This controversial stance is being questioned as death tolls climb, but the country’s officials stand firm: prime minister Stefan Löfven has encouraged his people to “behave like adults” and refrain from spreading “panic and rumours”.
However, there is one category of workers that’s heavily affected by the situation, no matter where they are: healthcare staff. Sofie Eklund, 27, a home-care nurse and home-care group coordinator from Stockholm, tells us what life is like for a health worker in a country that many people look up to as forward-thinking and modern.
“I work for the home-care service, which involves trained medical staff visiting the homes of patients who for different reasons cannot get to a hospital or a doctor’s practice on a regular basis and assist with things like providing medication, taking samples, caring for wounds and more,I am responsible for 25-30 patients, all of whom I have to visit in a two-week timespan. Every day I have around 11 patients – most of them elderly – whom I visit by walking or by bike. But since COVID-19, that number has risen to up to 18 patients per day.
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As the pandemic erupted, we found ourselves short-staffed, as some of my colleagues had to stay home while feeling unwell. There are six of us normally, to a load of 140 patients, and all of a sudden there were only three of us. Thankfully, the number of new patients hasn’t grown as much as we expected, so we have been able to handle being suddenly understaffed.
As a coordinator, I was assigned a group of people to pitch in and help who came from other areas of healthcare different to in-home care: doctors, psychologists, and nurses, and it was my responsibility to place them in different working groups around my area. This was not easy – people aren’t always as flexible as they would like to seem on their CVs. Many of them were frustrated at being torn away from their daily responsibilities and placed into a different area that was completely new to them.
There was a lot of anxiety and fear spreading around my team as the reality of the pandemic dawned upon us. We were counting on care spaces to be limited, for our number of patients to be doubled, and for our workload to increase. There were also concerns about the risk of not being able to help those who need help. But the disaster has been kept at bay: the main area of contagion is central Stockholm, where we have several large hospitals which are able to deal with the wave of cases. All elective, non-essential care has been postponed, which has freed up spaces for patients.
One of the hardest parts of my job is dealing with fatalities and having to face the reality of death. Of course as healthcare professionals who mainly work with elderly people, we are accustomed to the idea that this may sometimes happen – but not at this level, and not with this speed. We have had instances of care staff showing up in people’s homes and finding that their patients have died. This leads to increased levels of fear in staff – thoughts such as “this patient died, and they’re younger than my parents. Are they next?” and similar sometimes surface, which puts a strain on staff’s mental health.
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I was working with two patients who were a married couple, and the wife recently passed away from COVID-19, leaving the husband devastated. It’s heartbreaking to witness his deep grief during my visits, while knowing that social distancing measures mean that he cannot see relatives and is left completely alone to face his ordeal.
To deal with the psychological fallout of the situation, I have implemented a daily check-in meeting in my group, which is a free forum for everyone who wants to speak about emotional reactions they are having in the current situation. This helps us feel more supported and ready to face whatever this unpredictable situation may bring.
At a certain point during the rising wave of the pandemic, we found ourselves lacking essential personal protective equipment – particularly facial shields that we use to cover our faces when in high-risk areas. The reason why there was a shortage is that these items aren’t normally used that often, so there are limited reserves of them. But since these times called for this equipment to be available, I took the initiative to team up with some volunteers to…make some ourselves! We got in touch with several companies to ask if they could donate materials, and many were very enthusiastic to help us. It took a weekend of work – but in the end we made enough equipment to share with local clinics and hospitals.
In order to be able to afford the materials that we didn’t get donated to us, I called for financial donations on social media, and told my colleagues about it. They were eager to share my fundraiser with their contacts, and in the end we raised enough money not only to cover our equipment needs, but also to donate to an organisation that provides food for hospital workers. It felt great to be able to help more healthcare staff in need – especially as we could relate to their situation so well.
We currently have two COVID meetings per week, where our management shares the latest information, which has been comforting – they always emphasise that we shouldn’t always believe what we read on social media, but trust the official information being shared. And that is perhaps my main message: listen to the advice, and use your common sense. Here in Sweden, gatherings over 50 people have been banned – but does that mean that you should go to a bar where there are 40 people? Other countries are on lockdown, and we all know that’s awful, but please observe it and stay home.
And don’t let the fear win. Fear confuses us and leads to poor choices, and can make a bad situation even worse. But I hope and believe that in the future, our fears are bound to subside. We are all waiting for better times, and as numbers go down, we can turn the situation around.”
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All images supplied.