We are not the only country to be concerned with the sustainability of this workforce. Academics from the US have published an article about how regulations may be relaxed to sustain a pandemic workforce. Such skills-substitution is a useful consideration for the Australian context too. Other suggestions in the US relate to mobilising low-risk prison population, or drawing on retirees. In Australia, there are recruitment pools which seek applications from those not currently employed in the public health system, but also second- and third- year nursing students. Elsewhere, medical students are being considered to assist for routine duties, but why stop here?
What can be improved to sustain the pandemic workforce?
Estimates suggest that the current mortality in the United States could have been reduced by 90% if measures had been put in place two weeks earlier. We have been lucky in Australia: our mortality has been low, and our case rate has been decreasing. However, it is also unlikely that a great majority of Australians has been infected already, and so absent of technology or elimination, a second wave could occur. If it does, timing of public health interventions is crucial, and these rely on a workforce that is ready to go.
Many unemployed persons in Australia could serve as a pool of workers to carry out essential public health activities, such as screening or low-risk care work, and if there are current soft restrictions preventing this, these should be interrogated. This would involve creating roles that consist of essential low-skill tasks and duties which could be implemented by the Work for the Dole program. For workers whose vocation is health care, this would create opportunities for future caring roles (e.g. aged care work), but for those whose vocation lies elsewhere, there should be appropriate help given after their duties are done. For those who can fill this workforce, they should be incentivised to do so, and these incentives should be reviewed when business-as-usual sectors become competitive alternatives. However, incentives must be carefully considered due to the inherent risks of the work and the existing vulnerabilities of workers.
For those who are looking online for these jobs, advertisements should be made easy to find. Currently, if one searches 'COVID' in an attempt to participate in this workforce, they are likely to find false-positive results at a rate 3:1 (e.g. a job advertisement which has in its description ‘due to COVID, we are temporarily suspending hiring’). Making pandemic workforce jobs easier to find would be a simple matter of a check-box which advertisers could fill to flag their job as part of the response.
The other important piece of the puzzle is to have a solid plan of attack. At the time of writing, the current Australian COVID-19 health-system response plan is vague about what will need to be done during the ‘stand-down’ and ‘preparedness’ phases. There needs to be a clear way forward, which estimates how many workers will be needed, and errs on the side of generosity lest we are underprepared.
Rory Watts is a PhD candidate with the School of Population and Global Health at UWA. He thanks his supervisors Dr Ian Li, Dr Devin Bowles and Professor Colleen Fisher for their continued support. Views in this piece are his own.