Bittersweet celebration of nurses and midwives, 200 years after Florence Nightingale’s birth

By Candy Gibson

2020 is the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife, and what better time to acknowledge their role than in the midst of a global pandemic? UniSA Professor Marion Eckert discusses the bittersweet recognition that COVID-19 has delivered for the world’s largest workforce.

It seems fitting that in the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife, nurses are being celebrated the world over for their bravery, kindness, skills and sacrifice.

The occasion coincides with the worst pandemic in a century. COVID-19 has already infected more than four million people and killed over 280,000, including a rising tally of healthcare workers.

Being on the frontline of the pandemic has been bittersweet for the global nursing profession, according to Professor Marion Eckert, director of the Rosemary Bryant AO Research Centre and Professor of Cancer Nursing in South Australia.

“We should be planning celebrations this year but instead we are battling a silent killer, leaving not only ourselves vulnerable but our families, too,” Prof Eckert says.

Nurses comprise the largest single workforce in Australia, numbering around 380,000 in this country and 28 million worldwide, eclipsing every other profession.

Their role is important in normal circumstances; right now, it is pivotal to containing a disease that is crippling health systems and economies across the globe.

“The value of nurses has never been more prominent,” Prof Eckert says. “Every day they are going to work, not knowing if they are going to be infected, or inadvertently infect others. It becomes all encompassing, yet they have to put that aside and focus on the task at hand – caring for others.”

Prof Eckert says the community recognition and appreciation has helped nurses cope in these difficult months, particularly in countries where the coronavirus has left an enormous toll.

“People clapping in the streets and their neighbourhoods, supermarkets opening early specifically for healthcare workers, and simple gestures like cafes giving free coffees to nurses are all making a difference,” she says.

And despite the stresses currently facing the nursing profession, there are opportunities emerging from this crisis. The fast tracking of telehealth services is allowing nurses to connect with remote and rural communities in ways they have never done before.

The newfound respect for nurses and interest in their role also bodes well for future investment in nursing education and research.

In recent days, UniSA’s Rosemary Bryant AO Research Centre has seized the initiative to establish a clinical research network to collaborate on translational nursing and midwifery research across Australia and New Zealand.

The centre’s namesake has welcomed the move, saying the COVID-19 pandemic has identified some important gaps in nurses’ and midwives’ education.

Dr Rosemary Bryant AO, Australia’s first Commonwealth Chief Nursing and Midwifery Director, and former executive director of the Royal College of Nursing Australia, says nursing research receives scant funding compared to health research overall.

“Nurses comprise the largest workforce in the country and there is a critical need for research in that area alone,” Dr Bryant says. “It is also timely to look at changes to both the content and length of nursing courses to ensure we are educating them adequately for future challenges.”

Describing nurses as “the glue that holds the health system together,” Dr Bryant says in her 50-plus years in the profession, she has seen a gradual shift in community perception towards nurses.

“Salaries and working conditions have both improved in recent decades, reflecting the higher status of nurses, but there are subtle shifts, too. Patients have always thanked doctors, but now they are thanking nurses as well. And while people have always been aware of the role that nurses play, this has been heightened during this pandemic.”

Dr Bryant says Florence Nightingale, acknowledged as the world’s founder of modern nursing, would be “blown away” by the global efforts of the nursing fraternity to defeat COVID-19. It was the 200th anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth on 12 May.

“It was her work in the Crimean War that led to modern infection control and the saving of so many lives. She was the first person to demonstrate that cleanliness and distancing hospital beds were the key to fighting disease,” Dr Bryant says.

Two hundred years later, Nightingale’s legacy is crystal clear.