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COVID Disruptions Lead to Africa 'Brain Drain'

FILE - Nurses attend to a patient lying on a hospital bed in a medical ward at a local hospital in Harare, Zimbabwe, April 26, 2022.
FILE - Nurses attend to a patient lying on a hospital bed in a medical ward at a local hospital in Harare, Zimbabwe, April 26, 2022.

GENEVA — The World Health Organization (WHO) warns the widespread disruption of health services during the COVID-19 pandemic has led rich countries to increase their recruitment of health professionals from poor countries, resulting in some African nations are losing skilled workers. 

With the world suffering from a shortage of health care workers before the pandemic struck, three years of COVID-19 worsened an already concerning situation.

The WHO reports more than 115,000 health care workers died from the coronavirus, one in three suffer from anxiety and depression and about 40% have left the profession because of burnout.

This has set up a global competition among countries to recruit nurses and doctors to fill their dwindling ranks. WHO warns the accelerated recruitment of health professionals from poor nations could hurt health systems in their home countries.

Jim Campbell, the WHO director of the health workforce department, said of the 55 countries identified as most vulnerable to recruitment, 37 are in the WHO African region.

"For these 37 countries… the impact of that is potentially going to have a negative impact on the population access to qualified professional health worker and therefore that there should be no active recruitment from those countries," he said.

Campbell said it is easy for anyone who has a professional license within the African continent to migrate and seek work anywhere inside or outside the region, adding that poor working conditions and low pay contribute to the growing brain drain of health workers from the continent.

"The Gulf States have traditionally been reliant on international personnel. And, then some of the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) high-income countries have really accelerated their recruitment and employment to respond to the pandemic and respond to the loss of lives, the infections, the absences of workers during the pandemic," he said.

Campbell said the WHO does not work to prevent migration among health care workers. He notes migration has benefits when it is managed appropriately and when the benefits are accrued by the individuals and systems of both the source and destination countries.

WHO has drawn up a list of safeguards to ensure the international movement of health workers is ethically managed and measures are taken to ensure an adequate supply of health workers remain in the sending countries.