Image Credit: AFP

Big colourful rainbows painted by little hands in homes across Britain adorn windows. Nightly, isolating neighbours come together socially at safe distances across Italy and Spain and applaud. And in China, grateful officials prepare hundreds of thousands of campaign medals.

All are tokens of support for health care workers.

It is these doctors and surgeons, nurses and orderlies, cleaners and caterers who make up our legion of heroes in our gravest hour since the Second World War.

These professionals, mostly underpaid, mostly underappreciated, mostly unseen — and most at risk — who act with grace and generosity in helping those infected with Covid-19.

It is these modern day legion of Florence Nightingales, these doctors and specialists, support staff, cleaners and orderlies who are our heroes now at a time when half of the world’s population is under some sort of lockdown or have restrictions on their movements


These are men and women who make up human in ‘humanity’ at this time of need, who out their lives at risk, who soldier on when the odds are daunting, when death is looming, when there is no light before any dawn.

They work behind visors, in gowns, in gloves, masks and other disposable garments that we mere civilians know now as PPE — personal protective equipment.

Touches, tears and words

And it is they who serve as angels on the wards, offering final touches, tears and words of comfort when those who cannot fight anymore pass to the great beyond without family to cherish or embrace.

In Spain alone, where the death toll in this pandemic during the first 100 days has passed 13,000, some 1,100 health care workers have died too, servicemen and servicewomen who cared for others more than they cared for themselves.

It is these modern day legion of Florence Nightingales, these doctors and specialists, support staff, cleaners and orderlies who are our heroes now at a time when half of the world’s population is under some sort of lockdown or have restrictions on their movements.

The public is asked to do our part in this gargantuan struggle, stay home, stay apart, stay safe.

Yet it is our health care professionals who come together, care and cure, comfort and console while accepting the gravest of risks to their being.

Around the world, from Greek universities where those would-be doctors about to sit their final exams, to British colleges where the third-year cohort of student nurses, to retired professionals hauled from fishing lakes and gilded libraries — all are now press-ganged into active service against this pandemic that has infected close to 1.5 million and killed nearly 90,000.

Fighting an insidious enemy

They fight an insidious and invisible enemy, one that lurks on surfaces for up to 72 hours at a time, spreads invisible in droplets sneezed, coughed or through shaken hands, and passes though communities like knife through butter.

They do not hesitate, do not falter, do not waiver nor question — but ask instead that they be given the tools to allow them to do what they do so well: Take care of others.

In India, doctors who work with coronavirus patients are shunned as if they are of the lowest caste; in Britain, paramedics have been deliberately coughed at as they try and go about their work of tending to the sick and needy; and in the US, nurses still face social discrimination for going about their duty.

These are the deeds of the ignorant, the uninformed, the cowards.

Overwhelmingly, we share a deep appreciation of all that they do. And most of the hardest that they do we would not wish to see anyway, with occasional video footage from the intensive care units in northern Italy traumatic and terrifying.

Long has it been said that those who wish to become nurses do so, not because it is a career but because they have a vocation — a calling from a higher power to serve others.

When they finish long shifts in the front-line emergency wards and critical care wards, they return to their families where possible, never able to be fully share around a kitchen table how their day’s work has been.

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Resolution of purpose

They shoulder those deeds and ordeals with a vow of silence and the resolution of purpose in serving their fellow man and woman.

I have a nephew, Declan Woods, who has worked long and hard as a student nurse in a university in Leeds in northern England.

He turned 21 on March 27, a day when he was working a full shift in an emergency ward, treating patients with this terrible virus.

There was no coming-of-age party for him. Instead, his birthday suit was a gown and gloves, mask and visor. And on the days since then, he has put in many hours, his class being fast-tracked to graduate to wards and a wartime footing.

I have a niece, Pauline Byrne, a live wire in the best of times, who is a nurse who took her skills and education to Melbourne, to a lung transplant unit.

There are no lung transplants being performed now, but she has a skill set that makes her invaluable at a time when the difference between life and death on a ventilator is a matter of medical skill and divine timing.

They are just two. There are millions more.

In the UK, 40 per cent of those working in the National Health Service are from black, Asian or other minority ethnic groups. And most of them are immigrants.

Maybe, when this pandemic is over and a reckoning is done, they will be recognised as true Britons for the truly remarkable deeds and service they have performed.

These are remarkable times. Our lives as most of knew them are now turned upside down, our futures uncertain, our dreams forever shattered by this brutal reality.

Remarkable times and remarkable people. These health care workers, this cadre of carers are doing now what they have always done — the legion who look after others.

Never in the field of human endeavour have so many depended on so few. And how well they care for those in need without thought for their own safety. We are in awe.

Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe