Front-line workers
Frontline health workers are the backbone of effective health systems in the fight against Covid-19 Image Credit: Ador T Bustamante/Gulf News

Many people in the United Kingdom are still in holiday mode, usually in the mood for retail therapy as shops slash prices to get rid of their last seasonal inventories, and the day’s fare usually consists of turkey, stuffing and all the trimmings that remain leftover from Christmas Day.

But this year — like most other days for too much of 2020 — Boxing Day was not normal. In the British capital, the London Ambulance Service reported some 8,000 calls — almost double on the same day a year before. There were slightly less than 25,000 hospitalised with Covid-19 then, and on December 29 alone, there were more than 71,000 new cases reported. Right now, nine months into this pandemic, UK hospitals are being stretched more than at the initial peak of the outbreak in early April.

On the other side of the Atlantic, just under 3,000 frontline workers in the United States have died from coronavirus up to December 20 — about 680 died in New York and New Jersey alone — most were black or belonging to a visible minority, and one-third of the deaths are believed to be attributable to inadequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE). One fatality was Sue Williams-Ward, a 68-year-old home health aide who earned $13 (Dh47.74) an hour in Indianapolis, and bathed, dressed and fed clients without wearing any PPE, her husband said. She was intubated for six weeks before she died on 2 May.

Worldwide, it’s hard to obtain hard and fast statistics on just how many frontline workers have died worldwide from coronavirus while serving selflessly to care and protect the sick and infected — one estimate compiled in September put the figure then at 7,000.

In India alone by early September, some 573 frontline workers died from coronavirus. The Indian Medical Association also says that another 87,000 were infected by then.

“The more time you’re exposed to the virus, the more the risk of infection,” pulmonologist G.M.V. Kasiram was quoted as telling a reporter in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh then. The onslaught of new Covid cases has been relentless. “Despite efforts round the clock,” he said, “we just cannot manage the patients, or save many of them.”

Early September seems like so long ago, before that second wave and long before the new virulent strain has brought a third to much of Europe, the US and elsewhere. While the empirical data are missing, the thousands of online tributes pay homage to those who died. Larni Zuniga is one of the UK frontline workers who died. When UK Prime Minister Boris John was hospitalised in early April with Covid-19, the care home nurse fought for his life too in the intensive care unit of that London hospital. Zuniga was 54, originally from the Philippines and looked after seniors in a Surrey nursing home. “Larni was a true professional, who touched the lives of many,” his cousin, also a nurse said following his death in April. “He made a tremendous difference to a lot of people’s lives and he was highly respected by patients and colleagues alike.”

On Thursday evenings up and down Britain, in villages, hamlets, towns and cities, millions regularly stood and clapped, banged pots and cheered to say a simple ‘thank you’ to the tens of thousands of frontline workers who were — and sadly are — working to care for the ill and infected. Similar small gestures the world over honour those who toil in gloves and gowns, face shields and face masks, fighting the good fight, doing the heavy lifting and assisting in the last breath of too many: Theirs is the last face seen by so many.

The UAE too has lost frontline workers — at least seven have died these past months in a nation ever so grateful to all who put their lives on the line in the service of others. Just as the nation turned 49 and stopped to remember all who have died in the service of the UAE, those frontline heroes were foremost in the minds of our leadership.

At the sloping granite memorial at Wahat Al Karama in Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai honoured the families of those frontline workers who died helping others during the pandemic.

His Highness Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces also called the families of those fallen heroes.

“We are very proud of our heroes who lived with us and were part of our social fabric. They worked hard to protect our health and to ensure our safety during difficult times,” he said. Sheikh Mohamed added that the people of the UAE cherish their heroes, Emiratis and residents alike, look up to them as role models and value their sacrifices.

“The UAE will never forget the sacrifices made by Dr. Sudhir Rambhau Washimkar, nurse Lezly Orione, Anvar Ali, Ahmed Al Sebaei, Dr. Bassam Bernieh and other heroes who sacrificed their lives to protect our loved ones. The families of the heroes of humanity are part of our society and the UAE will always support and stand by them.”

Since early December, the first vaccines against coronavirus have been approved and have started to be distributed. There is a renewed optimism that this is the beginning of the end of this crisis, and that in six months’ time we will have returned to a sense of normality. Time is a great healer.

Compassion comes in different sizes, colours, histories and heritages. Caring comes in professional and personal dedication to us all, in our darkest hours, our deepest needs, our final moments. But the passing of time must not permit us to forget this band of brothers who together have shown us what true humanity is. How fortunate are we? And oh, how blessed are they.