Heroes on Strike: Trends in Global Health Worker Protests During COVID-19
Date: April 2022
Author(s): Sorcha A. Brophy, Veena Sriram, Haotian Zong, Chloei Andres, Maria Paz Mawyin, and Narayanan GL
Publication type: Accountability Note
Published by: Accountability Research Center
This Accountability Note describes global trends in health worker protests between March 11, 2020 and March 10, 2021. We argue that the frequent characterization of health workers as heroes of the pandemic obscures the fact that health workers themselves describe the challenges they face during this time as violations of their rights as workers, highlighting the obligations of their employers to provide working conditions and remuneration that justify the risk they assume. Using data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data (ACLED) Project, we first provide a global overview of the growth in health worker protest activity in the March 2020–2021 period as compared to the March 2019–2020 period. Health workers engaged in protest activity with greater frequency during the first year of the pandemic than during the prior year. The eighty-five countries included in the ACLED data set in both the March 2019–2020 period and the March 2020–2021 period experienced a sixty-two percent increase in health worker protest activity (from 2416 protests to 3913 protests). We then provide an overview of the content of the 6589 health worker protests in the ACLED dataset between March 2020 and March 2021, describing protests in 149 countries in terms of five categories: working conditions and remuneration, resources, health system delivery issues, public policy, and other. By far, the largest category of protests during this period are those related to working conditions and remuneration. Approximately sixty-six percent (N=4358) of global protests in the 2020–2021 period expressed health worker dissatisfaction about issues such as: occupational hazards, unpaid wages, risk allowances and job security. Surprisingly, personal protective equipment (PPE) concerns—an issue covered frequently in the media—motivated a relatively low percentage of the protests (less than nine percent). We note this not to downplay the gravity of global PPE shortages, but to situate PPE shortages as one among many health worker concerns during the pandemic. Protests initiated by health workers about health system delivery issues provide an important reminder that even in the middle of a pandemic, not everything was about COVID-19. Sixty-two percent of the health system-related protests during the 2020–2021 period were about issues that were not coded as directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, the vast majority of health workers’ protests around public policy were not about pandemic-related government policy, but about social issues like climate change, immigration, police brutality, and elections. The aim of this analysis is to understand what health workers advocated for during a time of immense pressure, and to identify some broad areas of concern for health sector accountability. Through this analysis, we prepare the groundwork for future research and action, and share preliminary guidance regarding how health sector stakeholders—including government, health worker associations, unions, and civil society—might develop improved systems of accountability.