During what has been one of the most unparalleled times in history, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has been in a unique position to support communities and health care workers, and help bring attention to issues surrounding COVID-19. We chatted with Michele Heisler, Medical Director at PHR, about the communities that are hardest hit by the pandemic, how PHR is pushing for vaccine equity, and the often overlooked long-term mental health impacts of COVID-19 on health care professionals.
Q: This past year has certainly brought a lot of challenges. Has it brought any opportunities?
A: The unprecedented circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic presented the opportunity to acknowledge and elevate the central philosophy of PHR—that health workers are a unique and critical voice on behalf of human rights worldwide.
From the earliest days of the coronavirus, health workers in Wuhan, China raised the alarm at tremendous personal risk and consequences to serve patients and bring the truth to the public. They’ve reported dangerous working conditions, alarming shortages of personal protective equipment, and little or no enforceable worker protections that have led to thousands of health workers dying of COVID-19 in the United States alone. Health workers have fought to preserve the scientific sanctity of policies and institutions while facing stigmatization, intimidation, employment termination, and even persecution for speaking out about the health risks and the lack of adequate resources to safely treat patients.
Health workers are now more engaged than ever in being transformative leaders for health and human rights and are preparing for crises to come in our increasingly interconnected world.
Q: What communities are being the hardest hit by COVID-19? And how has PHR been involved in those particular communities?
A: Communities of color that already experience systemic and generational health inequalities have disproportionate rates of COVID-19 transmission, illness, death, and now vaccine inaccessibility. Immigrants, asylum seekers, and those in detention also face disproportionate risks and harm. As a response, we’ve deployed physicians and other experts in our network to contribute evidence-based information, documentation, and recommendations. This includes providing medical declarations to secure the release of immigrants and others in detention facilities who are at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 and pose no public or community risk if they are released. We’ve also rigorously examined other issues, such as racial disparities in the pandemic, the impact of COVID-19 on gender-based violence, and the acute and disparate risks and losses that the pandemic poses to people experiencing homelessness, Native and Indigenous communities, immigrants and refugees, and people in prison and detention.
PHR is advocating for governments, institutions, and other stakeholders to use a human rights framework for vaccine distribution. A framework for equitable vaccine distribution will center workplace protections for frontline health workers, devote attention and resources to historically marginalized communities, and ensure that distribution is carried out in a manner that is non-discriminatory and physically and economically accessible worldwide.
Q: How is PHR pushing for vaccine equity?
A: We’re proud to be partnering with Oxfam America and other leading human rights organizations in the People’s Vaccine Campaign to ensure that vaccine production and distribution is widespread, fair, and equitable.
We also joined our campaign partners in an open letter to President Biden setting out principles for a People’s Vaccine, which provides protection as a global public good, freely and fairly available to all, prioritizing those most in need worldwide.
Q: What a lot of people don’t see are the long-term mental health impacts that COVID-19 has on health care workers. What are the exact impacts and why is this issue important?
A: The pandemic’s negative effects on mental health grow more severe by the day, including increased rates of anxiety, depression, and intense burnout amongst health care professionals. This burnout generates additional burdens on individual health workers, weakens the overall capacity to respond to the ongoing pandemic, and poses risks to the long-term strength and resilience of our health care system.
Q: How is PHR supporting health professionals through the rollout?
A: PHR’s commitment to health workers goes back to our founding in 1986. Since the onslaught of COVID-19, PHR has been working to protect health workers through efforts at the local, state, and federal level to push for safer and healthier conditions for frontline workers and meaningful protections that will safeguard their human rights.
Throughout the pandemic, that has meant supporting health workers to advocate for better protections and policies. We convened a coalition of organizations representing health workers in the early days of the pandemic, issued a guide to instruct health workers on their rights regarding speaking out and demanding that their institutions protect them, and coordinated on pushing governors to use state powers to enact and enforce safety protections. We also partnered with University of California, Berkeley to document the risks and ethical challenges health workers have faced while responding to COVID-19. That report found that many of their rights to health and workplace safety have been violated. We plan to use the information gathered to work with our partners to better advocate for health workers’ protection as the pandemic continues.
Q: How has the Dropbox Foundation partnership/grant money helped?
A: In the beginning of the pandemic, PHR didn’t have dedicated funding to support health workers with the evolving coronavirus threat. Our grant partnership with the Dropbox Foundation made it possible for us to take on public education and policy advocacy, which is where PHR’s expertise lies. The result of that work has put critical information in the hands of policymakers, leaders, and communities worldwide.
Q: What can people do to help?
A: Stay engaged with vaccine rollout and equity issues through our Arm in Arm campaign as we continue to advocate for vaccine production and distribution that is widespread, fair, and equitable.
Q: What is giving you hope?
A: I continue to draw hope from the health workers around the globe who have put their lives on the line to provide the vital medical care that continues to save lives at extraordinary personal risk.