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From Grief to Resolution: Reflecting on Health Worker Lives Lost to COVID-19

Isaac Abadi, Ashraf Abdo, John Abruzzo, Divina “Debbie” Accad, Quen Agbor Ako, Tamajin Ali…

So reads the memorial behind this powerful portrait of nurse Mary Briggs by the artist LMNOPI. These names, a partial list of the health workers we have lost to COVID-19, remind us that while health systems may be complex, what powers them is simple. And human.

At the Johnson & Johnson Center for Health Worker Innovation, we are marking this International Nurses Day by acknowledging that humanity, and taking a moment to grieve.

The International Council of Nurses reports that at least 2,262 nurses across 59 countries have died due to COVID-19. Lost on the Frontline, compiled by The Guardian and KHN, has captured some of the poignant stories of health workers who died in the US, a third of whom were nurses. According to data tracked by Amnesty International across 70 countries, we have lost at least 17,000 health workers to COVID-19. Each of these numbers is likely a significant underestimate, and the scale can obscure that each life lost was someone who mattered—a mother or father, husband or wife, son or daughter, friend or neighbor.

As we grieve, the painful truth remains: many of these health worker deaths could have been prevented with safer working conditions, proper protective equipment and adequately resourced health systems. The particularly heavy human toll of the pandemic on the health workforce is also contributing to the mental health crisis driving many from this vital work—especially concerning in light of the 18 million health worker shortage estimated by the WHO prior to COVID-19.

Whether it is helping mothers survive childbirth and children grow to their full potential or taking care of us through this or future pandemics, all of our health depends on ensuring that health workers today and in the future are adequately paid, equipped, trained, respected and protected.

LMNOPI’s portrait captures as only art can the emotional journey through this unprecedented period of loss—for all victims of COVID-19, but uniquely for those who gave their lives caring for others. Grieving each heartbreaking story shared by colleagues and family members further stiffens our collective resolve to honor them by taking action in whatever capacity we can. At the Center, we will continue to elevate health worker voices, advocate for them, and work with partners to ensure that the front line emerges from this pandemic better supported than before. Here are some ways you can help too.

Through grief, we can rise and rebuild. We can find inspiration in Mary Briggs and the millions of quiet heroes like her in communities around the world. Our thoughts today are with those health workers still battling COVID-19—especially in India and Brazil. Let us resolve to work together to ensure that this level of loss does not happen again.