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We Need Nurses In India Now More Than Ever, But Do We Really Value Them?

Posted: May 11, 2020

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More than a century ago, Florence Nightingale pioneered the professional nursing system; yet, even today, nurses in India do not receive the respect due to professionals.

Nurses are the backbone of the healthcare sector. No hospital or clinic is complete without nurses, and contrary to what we assume, they do much more than assist the doctors.

During recovery after any surgery or major illness, the role of nurses becomes crucial, and especially now, when we are in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, this should be clearer than ever.

Since ancient times, the role of nurses has been important, even if there was no distinct cadre of nurses – in Europe, monks and nuns used to give nurse-like care before the formal establishment of nursing as a discipline.

What about nurses in India? In the Indian context too, the ancient Sanskrit medical text, the Sushruta Samhita speaks of the desired qualities for a nurse as being level-headed, pleasant and attentive to the instructions of the physician, though it does not specify a separate professional class of nurses.

In ancient Greece, nurses were predominantly male. It was during the Crimean War of 1854, (a war between Russia and an alliance of Britain, France, Ottoman empire and Sardinia) that the British government mobilised doctors and nurses to serve at the war camp in present day Istanbul. Among these 38 nurses was Florence Nightingale, considered the pioneer of the modern nursing system.

The conditions at the camp were bad, with poor medical supply, overworked staff, poor hygiene and the rapid spread of infections as a result. Florence Nightingale played a pivotal role in reducing the death rate by introducing simple procedures like hand washing among the soldiers. She was also instrumental in the formation of a military hospital and raising awareness about the poor sanitary conditions. Subsequently, as a result, the authorities improved the ventilation system and cleaned the sewers, which led to a sharp reduction of deaths.

After the war, she founded the Nightingale School and Home for Nurses at St Thomas’ Hospital in London to create more nurses and establish the profession of nursing. Her book Notes on Nursing (1860) which gives a detailed account on the roles and responsibilities of nurses is still in print today. Many of the nurses trained by her went on to professionalise nursing around the world, and she received the first Royal Red Cross for her contribution to nursing.

Nurses in India today: Hardly valued or compensated

Even today, women dominate the nursing profession around the world; yet the working conditions for nurses are still poor in many parts of the world, including in India. The work hours are long, the pay is poor and nurses in India are often treated as second grade employees when compared to doctors. As this article in the Scroll reports, “Most of India’s nurses work in private hospitals, which are largely unregulated and do not follow the norm of having nurse-patient ratios of one to every four. Nurses work nine- to 14-hour days, often doing double shifts. Their starting salaries are between Rs 3,000 and Rs 15,000. Many nurses are required to sign contractual bonds with their employers withholding their educational certificates as guarantee.”

Moreover, they are rarely promoted to senior level administrative positions; as most nurses hail from working class families, many patients and their families also treat nurses with disdain.

Even in the present scenario, where nurses are doing the backbreaking work of supporting Covid-19 patients during their arduous recovery, they are not receiving due respect or support. As The News Minute reports, nurses report getting inferior facilities in every aspect, saying, “From transportation facilities to accommodation and food, nurses, who are among the frontline warriors against COVID-19, have been left in the lurch.”

There have also been many reports of nurses in India not being provided with adequate safety gear, whereas nurses are at high risk of infection owing to the very nature of their jobs. Who can forget the case of nurse Lini who faced death head on during the Nipah virus epidemic?

Today on Florence Nightingale’s birthday (May 12th), it’s time to remember the services of nurses, the frontline warriors who aid us in recovery when we need it most. Nurses in India certainly need a much better level of pay, facilities as well as recognition of their work as professionals.

Image via Unsplash

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