Healthcare workers are struggling with COVID-19 'compassion fatigue'

'It’s hard to feel compassion for people who contribute to other people’s deaths for unjustified and selfish actions.'

FILE: A patient infected with COVID-19 at the Tembisa Hospital in Gauteng on 2 March 2021. Picture: Guillem Sartorio / AFP

JOHANNESBURG - Doctors and nurses are not coping with misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines. Some of them told Eyewitness News that it affected their ability to do their work but that their responsibility to the public was most important.

Day after day, healthcare workers are dealing with increasing serious COVID-19 infections. As of 5pm on Monday, there were 7,632 people reported to be COVID-19 cases, bringing the confirmed caseload to over 2.5 million people. So far, 79,584 people have passed away from the virus in South Africa. Under nine million of South Africa's 39 million-strong adult population has been vaccinated.

Medical professionals said that it was becoming increasingly frustrating to treat patients for COVID-19 who were refusing to take the vaccine.

"As front line workers, we do feel these conflicting emotions, especially when we chat to other people, we read social media posts about people refusing to be vaccinated for crazy reasons. We know that by having a prolonged pandemic where we can't get the majority of people vaccinated, we do prolong the pandemic. And those are the anti-vaxxers, they are the ones almost contributing to the development of maybe more variants."

Caroline Lee is a doctor at a private hospital in Johannesburg with COVID-19 patients and said that she was battling to save lives and still care for those who were refusing to take the jab.

"We know that, as health workers on the front line, [we have] to go through the third wave and have to go through all that death and suffering of our own family members and colleagues. We do have these conflicting emotions, almost angry with people who are refusing to be vaccinated and prolonging the whole thing," said Lee.

But she said that her professionalism always took over and she treated all her patients the same way because they all had a right to healthcare.

"That’s why there’s compassion fatigue, when you have to suffer moral dilemmas or injury, feeling morally torn when resources are limited. And then there’s people that contribute to making it worse by refusing the vaccine. We know that more people are going to die unnecessarily because the pandemic cannot be contained. That’s why it’s hard to feel compassion for people that contribute to other people’s deaths for unjustified and selfish actions. Ultimately though, no matter what we feel, ethics always wins and we always do what is right based on what we have got. We do our best," she said.

There are also those in the public health sector who feel the same way.

A nurse who spoke to Eyewitness News on condition of anonymity said that government's communication plans did not educate communities enough about the safety of vaccines.

"It is frustrating to have some patients not agreeing to be vaccinated. But also I think government is not doing enough giving the necessary information. It's an extra burden of work on healthcare workers - the advocacy work never ends - but also we don't have enough support from the government."

The South African Medical Association (Sama) said that doctors pledged an oath on the day of graduation to never let their own opinion be the norm and standard of the care they provided to their patients. Sama also states that medical practitioners have to abide by the rules outlined by the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA).

Sama chairperson, Angelique Coetzee, told Eyewitness News: "You want to tell the patient, 'you should have listened when I was trying to warn you', but you cannot do that. You have to treat the patient to the best of your capabilities and you also need to not punish the patient."

But there could be some changes on the vaccine regulations in coming months that could ease the burden.

Coetzee said: "There will be regulations coming out within the next 2-3 months around this topic... when you work with people, that you need to be vaccinated. If you are vaccine-hesitant, the employer will need to make sure that you get consultation around that and that it's been explained to you. And if you keep then refusing while you are working with people, you might end up losing your job. This will not be on humanitarian grounds, but that will be strictly out of the point of law's side."

Health workers said that many patients who were now in intensive care with COVID-19 complications were not vaccinated.

"I often chat to my patients and a lot of them say they didn't believe that COVID existed until 'I got here and now I'm here struggling to breathe,'" said Lee.

She encouraged people to get vaccinated and help ensure the pandemic didn't drag on for much longer.

The vaccination drive opened to the 18- to 34-year-old age group on Friday. So far, over 600,000 people from this group vaccinated over the weekend and on Monday.

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