Pacific People 2020: Our health frontliners

When Marnette Aggabao died from apparent COVID-19 related complications in Guam recently, she joined a tragic tally of health workers all over the world who have died during the pandemic.

Aggabao, a 62-year-old registered nurse originally from the Philippines, was admitted to hospital for other medical problems and with a COVID diagnosis. She spent more than spent six weeks there before she died.

Local media quoted her friends as saying Aggabao had talked of retiring, but “then this thing happened.”

This ‘thing’ is COVID-19, and the response of our health frontliners in working so hard to treat COVID patients, test and screen many of us, undertake contact tracing, communicate new behaviours (extended hand washing, sanitiser user, social distancing), and deliver usual health services—all in the face of their own fears and exhaustion— is why they are our Pacific People of the Year.

In some Pacific states and territories, health workers also represent a significant number of patients. 60 Guam Memorial Hospital staffers had tested positive for COVID-19 from the start of the pandemic to October. In Papua New Guinea, a large number of healthcare workers who had been stationed at a COVID-19 testing lab were exposed, and their family members along with them.

Prime Minister James Marape ordered an inquiry, saying: “All healthcare workers are supposed to be equipped and all health facilities have been supplied with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Something went wrong somewhere.”

But in most Pacific nations, health workers have escaped infection through the application of strict protocols including the donning of PPE.

“I think our health care workers have done very, very well,” says Fiji’s health minister Dr. Ifereimi Waqainabete. “They’ve actually shown what I’ve known all along. What has actually worked in our favour is that over the last few years the government has actually invested a lot in opening more positions for health workers, making sure there are a lot of scholarships available…That coupled with the fact that there has been sufficient renumeration of doctors and other staff in the ministry of health have actually prepared us really well for the challenges we have faced this year and they’ve been able to answer the call and in some cases, above and beyond what is expected.”

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