Don’t forget them

Honouring the UK health + social care workers lost to COVID-19

My most memorable #ClapForOurCarers took place last April. I had just moved to a new residence hall and didn’t know anyone there, but it looked unusually bright outside for 8 PM, and I felt brave. Armed with a family-sized hand sanitiser squeeze bottle, I walked along neighbouring blocks lined with apartments and office buildings, their streetlights flashing like fireflies. As the hour struck, I started recording the scene. The clanging and hollering and whistling couldn’t have been clearer, despite the abandoned appearance of the whole street.

Like I saw that evening, momentum to support the health and social care workforce, or the semblance of such, was high last spring. And alongside the public’s interest, media reports of PPE issues, staff strain, and treatment backlogs surged. During this period, we also learned of the first deaths of nurses, doctors, and carers from COVID-19 — stories of their service were heralded, and many were named “heroes”. Since then, coverage has slowed. This is good news — it may mean that risk assessments have improved for vulnerable staff members, protective equipment is no longer in short supply, and facilities are better at infection control. But it’s still important to note what went wrong for this population of interest and let their sacrifice be not in vain, especially as restrictions ease.

I’m not a scientist, and my studies in epidemiology have only been cursory. I do know, though, that UK data show a statistically significant increase in COVID-19 mortality risk for health and social care workers compared to the general population, and that healthcare professions in specific typically involve a greater level of interaction with other people and with pathogens. While social care workers reported a somewhat attenuated exposure to both of the above, reports suggest that protective equipment in facilities where they worked was scarce before summer 2020. It’s also important to highlight demographic factors such as age, pre-existing conditions, gender, sex, and race, even though sourcing these data with reference to who worked on the frontline during the pandemic is difficult.

We are lucky that some academic literature exists on occupation-related virus mortality, not only in the UK, but across the world (e.g. this study). However, as is often the struggle with quantitative information, it’s hard to grasp what these losses mean for the people affected.

Therefore, I present this long-overdue visualisation.

I used numerous media sources to compile details of more than 200 UK health and social care workers who have died from COVID-19 from last March to the present day. The total figure is likely over 1,000 (this source gives the ONS figure of 850 from March-December 2020), but many deaths are not identified for privacy reasons.

To see a full-screen version of this interactive graphic, click here.

This is a condensed version of a project I have been putting together since last spring. The dataset I collected is not conducive to categorical comparisons, mostly because professions have been specifically named, but nurses appear to predominate. I also noticed the number of first-generation immigrant workers present; without engaging in political arguments about migration, it’s devastating to realise that although these individuals gave much to a country where they would be often seen as strangers, their last rites were made much more difficult in the face of travel restrictions.

I was afraid that I would be desensitised by these stories after reading them for so long. But that has not happened — every time I learn about another nurse, another porter, another surgeon, I think about their world: their colleagues, their families, the music they liked, their home cooking, the kinds of jokes they made, and the patients they attended to and cheered and comforted and saved. This compilation is but a microcosm of the 17,000+ health and social care professionals who have died from COVID-19 around the world.

We might call them heroes (defined by Merriam-Webster as “a person who is admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities”). But they are human, so they need support. Two things I am almost certain they require are vaccines and higher grade respirators. I may produce more content about the latter soon.

Thank you for reading.

If you are interested in learning more about the advocacy work that supports healthcare workers in specific to access the most effective protective equipment, follow @MedSupDriveUK on Twitter. The charity is less active on socials at this stage, but is working behind the scenes to present evidence to policymakers.



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Yaning Wu

she/her. Population Health student @ UCL. Perpetual dataviz nerd. Published on Towards Data Science and UX Collective.