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Finland's everyday heroes working despite face mask, sanitiser shortage

The well-documented worldwide shortage of personal protection equipment doesn't just affect healthcare workers.

Kolmen sepän patsaan sepät takovat koronavirusta hengityssuojaimissa.
The Three Smiths statue in the centre of Helsinki was recently updated with a coronavirus-themed message. Image: Esko Jämsä / AOP

Many people are now working from home because of the coronavirus shutdown, but what's it like to carry on working even when you might be at risk?

Some in key industries are working as hard as ever in their normal workplaces — and they are subject to the same PPE shortages afflicting Finland and the world.

"Worrying and stressful"

Sandy Paavola has been working as a nurse in Finland for the last 10 years. She is also currently six months pregnant, and describes her situation as "super worrying and stressful".

Hospitals are currently stretched even further, as any member of hospital staff with coronavirus symptoms must be quarantined.

The risks to healthcare workers are clear, with doctors and nurses worldwide falling victim to the disease — and a lack of personal protection equipment meaning they might run extra risks.

"Even before I start work, something as simple as getting on the bus or metro is such a scary thing to do these days," Paavola says. "I have had to detach myself emotionally from all the news about the virus in order to stay strong."

Although Paavola follows every guideline and recommendation she receives about maintaining personal and workplace hygiene, she admits it still isn’t enough to calm her worst fears.

"I leave home every morning with the wish of just coming back healthy again," Paavola says. "The worries of leaving my five-year-old in daycare, the worries of being around my colleagues, the uncomfortability of wearing the face mask which makes breathing very difficult for me. I find myself so tired and afraid, mentally and emotionally."

Inadequate equipment and conflicting instructions

Mervi Flinkman, a Senior Advisor at the Union of Health and Social Care Professionals (Tehy), tells Yle News that the union’s 160,000 members have reported a multitude of concerns brought about by the coronavirus crisis.

The union represents workers right across the crisis "frontline", including those in hospitals, care homes and nursing homes.

Those in healthcare have the most acute need for personal protective equipment (PPE).

"Members feel that fabric protectors used in home care and nursing homes with asymptomatic patients do not provide adequate protection for the patient or for the professionals," Flinkman says, adding that members in almost every sector have reported concerns about the adequacy and protection of PPE’s.

This situation is further exacerbated by confusing and sometimes-conflicting instructions.

"Our members have been burdened by receiving different information from their own employer than that provided in the authorities' instructions," Flinkman says. "The employer may also have given instructions only verbally, or else the instructions have changed frequently."

Flinkman encourages members to continue to raise concerns as they arise, so that the relevant authorities can take appropriate action.

"The concerns and worries should first be raised in the workplace and the concerns reported to the closest manager," Flinkman advises. "Assistance can be requested from the shop steward or the occupational safety and health representatives. Members can also contact their union, such as Tehy, and ask for help and advice."

Workers need more protection

Abid Zulfiqar, a courier for the food delivery company Foodora in Helsinki, says he is "busier than ever" due to the pandemic.

Although the company introduced "contactless deliveries" very soon after the pandemic hit Finland, Zulfiqar believes much more could be done to protect people in his line of work as they provide the "essential service" of delivering food to people.

Instead of supplying couriers - who are considered freelance "partners" of Foodora and not employees - with protective equipment such as masks, gloves, and sanitiser, the company instructed each rider to source the necessary equipment themselves and claim up to 12 euros back in expenses.

This is challenging given supply shortages, and Zulfiqar says it would be better if the company provided the necessary items.

"Sometimes I have had to use a piece of cloth and jacket to cover my whole face and upper part of my body respectively," Zulfiqar explains. "I also had to borrow hand sanitiser from my friend because I couldn’t find any in Helsinki. I constantly have this fear in my heart and mind that I might get this virus from anyone at any time."

Outi Sjöman, Communications Manager at Foodora, told Yle News that the reimbursement policy was a temporary measure brought in by the company as an initial response to the unfolding crisis.

"We will begin providing the riders with safety equipment as soon as our order arrives - hopefully next week," Sjöman says. "The reason the reimbursement practice was in place in the beginning is that it simply took a bit of time to order the safety equipment as global demand is so high at the moment."

Story continues after photo.

Abid Zulfiqar
Abid Zulfiqar moved to Finland from Pakistan in 2018.

Aside from the company's response, Zulfiqar also believes Finnish authorities were slow to react to the pandemic, and that there should be better enforcement of the regulations.

"I still see large numbers of people walking in the city, sitting together and having fun while drinking beer or smoking cigarettes," Zulfiqar says. "The government must take more preventative measures like ordering a tighter restriction on when people can come out of their homes without any purpose as many other countries have done."

Changing attitudes toward some workers

The pandemic has led to a heightened awareness of the importance of cleaning.

Slavica Mijatović has been working as a cleaner for the past two years, and has noticed a shift in attitudes towards those in her profession.

In the early stages of the outbreak, Mijatović asked that office workers "take a break" while she cleaned their workspace. This was in everyone’s interests, she says, as it allowed her to remain at least two metres away from other people at all times and also gave her time to thoroughly clean every area.

Working as a cleaner during the pandemic has brought extra tasks for Mijatović but she says the biggest and most noticeable difference is actually a positive one.

"People now respect me a lot more. They appreciate my work and the risk I am exposed to," Mijatović says. "They listen to everything I tell them or demand of them. I feel a little bit like a boss, in these new crazy times."

Story continues after photo.

A present the office staff left for Slavica Mijatovic in recognition of her cleaning work.
A present the office staff left for Slavica Mijatovic in recognition of her cleaning work.

Mijatovic also believes the pandemic will have a profound effect on society in the future.

"I think the whole society is united in a common fight, and we are all in the same boat. This experience will forever change how you see yourself as an individual who is part of a larger whole. I think now we're all the same, rich and poor, cleaners and servants," Mijatovic adds.

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