- May 12 was the 200th anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth.
- Nightingale, known as the first “professional nurse,” is celebrated every year for pioneering nursing methods used today: hand-washing, isolating patients, and supporting their emotional well-being.
- She wrote many times that she didn’t want to be a celebrity. She just wanted to affect change and get real government support.
- Her words have been echoed by nurses on the front lines fighting the coronavirus: clapping from the community is a huge support, but they need more than applause from the government.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, this year was always going to be a big year for nurses. It marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, known as the first professional nurse.
She’s credited with saving tens of thousands of lives during the Crimean War of 1853 to 1856 by pioneering simple yet transformative methods that are still the bedrock of nursing today: washing hands, isolating patients from others, and comforting them emotionally with books, care, and attention.
In the UK, she paved the way to universal healthcare by setting up nursing stations in Victorian workhouses for the most disadvantaged in society, which provided the blueprint for the National Health Service (NHS).
Every year, on May 12, a procession of nurses carry a lamp — as Nightingale did while attending the wounded in Balaklava, Crimea — and place it on the altar in the eponymous Florence Nightingale Chapel at Westminster Abbey in the heart of London. It’s a ritual to honor Nightingale’s influential work, and all the nurses working today.
This year’s celebration was going to be that and more. The World Health Organization named 2020 “the year of the nurse,” with events planned around the world, including a film festival, and a conference in Florence, Italy, where Nightingale was born.
But it was due to much more sinister circumstances that nurses have been thrown into the spotlight.
As the world grapples with an unrelenting pandemic, nurses are the frontline defense against the novel coronavirus.
Nurses make up over half of the global healthcare workforce, and provide the vast majority of day to day care. As such, they are the most affected by COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Data is scarce, but research by the International Council of Nurses suggests more than 90,000 nurses have been infected and 260 have died.
Their sacrifice hasn’t gone unnoticed: President Donald Trump remarked “America’s nurses are heroes!” in a recent address from the Oval Office — a sentiment echoed by politicians around the world. In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was treated for COVID-19 at St Thomas’ (the nursing center Florence Nightingale set up), has joined the nation in clapping for healthcare workers every Thursday night at 8 pm.
But as Florence Nightingale herself said, rhetoric won’t do anything to account for the lives lost due to a lack of protective equipment for nurses, essential information for the public, and widespread testing to catch cases early.
Clapping keeps nurses going, but they want more than that
Nightingale bristled at her celebrity status and “all that ministerial angel nonsense” that she felt was projected onto her.
In fact, she was so exasperated with all the demands for interviews and photographs that, at the end of her life, she wrote in a letter: “I only wish to be forgotten.”
For nurses treating COVID-19 patients, the recognition and support from the general public is more than welcome; it keeps nurses going in the hardest of circumstances, says Annette Kennedy, president of the International Council of Nurses.
Indeed, nurses from around the world have told Business Insider that even the smallest gestures from their community have made a significant impact, boosting their morale, mental health, and stamina.
“One of the rare good things about this situation has been the generosity of people, the locals, the patients’ families, the restaurants, bakeries, who all provide us with food every day. Their support and generosity warm our hearts and it encourages us to keep fighting,” Léo Warning, an intensive-care nurse in Paris, France, told Business Insider.
“Any gesture of support, however small it may be, fills us with joy,” Marina Angulo Urturi, an ICU nurse in northern Spain, said.
But they want and need more than that from people in power. Nurses in Japan, Thailand, England, the United States, Italy, France, Colombia, and Mexico said they are understaffed, and lack personal protective equipment.
“When [applause] comes from the community and society, it’s very well-received. There is no doubt about it,” Kennedy told Business Insider. “But from the government, that’s not what they need. They don’t need clapping. They need protective equipment and they need support physically and psychologically. They need to be tested and they need to be quarantined.
“What we would worry about is that governments just say ‘Nurses are heroes.’ Well, they were heroes yesterday and they’ll be heroes tomorrow. If this becomes about rhetoric as opposed to investing in them, then that’s unacceptable.”
Nursing is one of the lowest paid professions
Applause also won’t change the fact that nurses are among the lowest-paid in society.
“The nursing profession is undervalued, not only financially, but it doesn’t get much social or professional recognition, even in health institutions,” Sandra Bautista Mora, a nurse and care home director in Colombia, told Business Insider. “We are low on the scale, but we are the ones who best know the patient, and deal with their ups and downs.”
A recent report laid out a commonly-held perspective of why there is such a skew in pay: nurses carry out care that is generally seen as “women’s work,” the authors at the Royal College of Nursing and Oxford Brookes University concluded. “Historic perceptions that care is a naturally feminine skill or characteristic sit in direct opposition to the high level of skills and professionalization required in contemporary nursing.”
Kennedy said it’s a perception borne out globally. “Childcare and housework and taking care of dependent relatives —that all goes unrecognized and unpaid. And that gender inequality in society has a kind of knock-on effect in relation to nursing as well.”
The coronavirus pandemic has shown the importance of investing in nursing
“You have to invest in nursing, for the sake of the people they serve and their lives and for economic security and even the freedom to walk in the park,” Kennedy told Business Insider.
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“There will be a fight. They [politicians] will say, “but, you know, we don’t have money.” What I would say is: if you want people healthy working in your economy, then you have to invest in healthcare and you have to invest in nursing.”
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