ICN calls for more protection of humanitarian and health workers

4 April 2024

1. ICN reaction to deaths of seven World Central Kitchen aid workers in Gaza

Responding to the shocking and heartbreaking news of the seven international aid workers from World Central Kitchen (WCK) killed in Gaza, ICN President Dr Pamela Cipriano said, “ICN and its federation of National Nurses Associations sends its deepest condolences to the families and friends of the staff from WCK, recently killed in Gaza. There must be protection and accountability for all frontline workers, including humanitarian and health workers.

‘We reiterate ICN’s call that people in Gaza and other war zones be granted access to sufficient humanitarian aid, and that those delivering and providing that aid and care be given due protection as demanded by international law.”

ICN has repeatedly called for the end to hostilities, the protection of innocent civilians, and the protection of healthcare workers and facilities in conflict zones across the world.

On today’s Global Nursing Caucus crisis webinar, ICN CEO Howard Catton said, “The recent tragic events in Gaza, where seven WCK aid workers were killed, is a brutal example of how humanitarian and health workers are not being adequately protected. Injuries and deaths of frontline workers, including nurses, must not be allowed to continue, whether they occur in conflict zones, natural disasters or pandemics.

‘It is never acceptable for humanitarian and health workers to be considered ‘collateral damage’ in such situations, and that is why ICN is urging the International Negotiating Body that is devising the new Pandemic Treaty to include the protection of nurses and other health workers. Nurses need to be as influential as they are trusted, their voice must be heard.”

2. ICN says there is still time to protect nurses in WHO’s upcoming global pandemic treaty

The International Council of Nurses (ICN) says there is still time for member states to influence the World Health Organization’s (WHO) proposed Pandemic Accord to ensure that the nursing workforce is properly protected.

Member states to the WHO International Negotiating Body (WHO, INB) have so far failed to agree on a final draft of the treaty on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response, after 13 months of talks.

Before the conclusion of INB talks last week, ICN and Public Services International (PSI), the global union federation of workers in public services, issued a joint statement expressing their alarm at the draft treaty’s lack of commitment to protect health workers.

They also argued that it should include the suspension of intellectual property rights on pandemic products such as vaccines during a pandemic, and that equity within and between countries should be explicitly included in the treaty.

ICN Chief Executive Officer Howard Catton said: “After the traumas of the COVID-19 pandemic, the laudable response from governments globally was to negotiate and agree a treaty that would maximize humankind’s ability to prepare for and deal with the next pandemic and protect nurses and other health care workers.

‘The clock is ticking and the INB now has less than 8 weeks till the start of the World Health Assembly meeting in Geneva, where the treaty is expected to be ratified. Failure to sign it off is not an option because it would condemn the world to repeating the terrible mistakes of COVID-19 that unnecessarily cost so many lives and took such a terrible toll on the wellbeing of nurses around the world. There is still time to ratify the draft treaty and ensure that ICN’s concerns about the safety of nurses and the other issues in the ICN/PSI statement are properly addressed.”

The treaty is due to be presented at the 77th World Health Assembly in May 2024, but last week’s 9th meeting of the INB closed without producing a final draft of a treaty, and further talks are expected.

The INB was set up by WHO in December 2021 to draft a convention or treaty, based on the principles of inclusiveness, transparency, efficiency, Member State leadership and consensus.

The full statement from ICN and PSI

As WHO Member States approach the last days of the 9th Meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Body of the Pandemic Treaty (INB9) this week, Public Services International (PSI) and the International Council of Nurses (ICN) raise the alarm, based on the concerns of health and care professionals and workers worldwide at the lack of commitment by Member States to recognize, value and protect the health and care workforce in the Pandemic Agreement.

Our organizations represent millions of health and care workers whose sacrifices on the frontline led the global community out of the pandemic crisis. Poorly compensated, unprotected, demoralized, depressed and completely exhausted, our members, the health and care workers in all your countries are saying "Never Again!” shall we face the next pandemic in those conditions.

This same spirit inspired the 2nd Special Session of the World Health Assembly’s resolution for the formulation of a pandemic accord, and formation of the INB to guide this process. That spirit must inform the negotiations and final outcome of the pandemic agreement.

Thus, we demand that the agreement explicitly includes:

Decent work and Social Dialogue – including fair compensation, social protection, mental health and well-being, priority access to PPEs and health technologies during pandemics, gender equality and non-discrimination, as addressing harassment, violence and threats against health and care workers, particularly gender-based violence;

Precautionary Principle - in pandemic settings to safeguard the lives of health and care workers on the frontline, when the cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically and there may be threats of harm to human health or the environment;

Protection of health and care workers’ families – including commitments in the text to put in place policies in the event of injury, sequelae or death during pandemic response;

Fair and ethical recruitment – recognizing that the continued global shortfall of healthcare workers especially in low- and middle-income countries is inequitable and a cause of health harms and inequity, commit to strengthen the WHO Global Code of Practice on International Recruitment of Health Personnel, ensure that bilateral agreements entail proportional benefits and strengthen ILO core labor standards;

Safe staffing – recognizing that health worker safety and patient safety are two sides of the same coin commit to adopt the WHO Charter for health worker safety including having systems in place to define and maintain safe staffing levels;

Resilient and well-funded public health and care systems – as the backbone of crisis preparedness and universal health care;

Suspension of Intellectual Property Rights on pandemic products – establishing a legally binding and automatic mechanism to waive intellectual property rights for essential technologies after a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) is declared.

Equity within and between countries – Member States must accept legally binding obligations on benefit-sharing that may come from access to pathogens; the PABS system (WHO Pathogen Access and Benefit-Sharing) must be accountable, transparent and equitable.

There can be no health without a healthcare workforce and lack of investment in healthcare workers lays at the center of why the world was not adequately prepared for the pandemic. That must never happen again and requires commitment by all member states to prioritize, commit and act on increased investment in the healthcare workforce.

Balanced solutions must be balanced solutions. It cannot be business as usual where the same countries that have always demonstrated power continue to demonstrate power in the Pandemic Agreement.

Uphold human rights, justice and equity in the Pandemic Agreement!

Protect, value and invest in the health and care workforce!

Put people over profit! Health before wealth!