The worrying rise in abuse of front-line staff

Laura Gavin May 20, 2020
The worrying rise in abuse of front-line staff

From the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, we have heard stories of hope, of altruistic gestures, of communities pulling together. But we’ve also, sadly, heard stories of front-line staff abuse.

Nurses accused of being ‘disease spreaders’. People coughing, spitting and sneezing deliberately on police officers and other key workers. Sometimes the results have been fatal, as in the case of Belly Mujinga, a railway worker who was spat at in London Victoria Station and later died from covid-19.

While it can be just as damaging to idolise NHS and other key workers as ‘heroes’, it takes a massive leap of imagination to understand why anyone would want to shower front-line workers with abuse. These are people who have been willing to face life-threatening working conditions for the good of all.

Threats and harassment towards shop workers

Figures released this week from Central England Co-op statedan increase in verbal abuse in 260 stores across 16 counties, rising from 11 reports a week to 24 a week during the past month.

In April, shopworkers’ union Usdaw reported during the first month of lock-down incidents of harassment, violence and threats in the retail industry doubled. One in six front-line workers experienced some form of abuse on every shift.

After a spate of abusive customers, a checkout assistant at a Sainsbury’s store near Nottingham told me she hadn’t wanted to return to work last week. Why had people been rude and aggressive towards her? For pointing out the two-metre rule and asking them to step back. A sad testament to community spirit.

Front-line staff in healthcare face covid-19 – and abuse

Meanwhile reports from Mexico have also highlighted the increasing dangers of being a front-line medical worker – not only from catching a deadly virus but also fears of assault.

Physical abuse has been rife in the country, with 47 attacks against medical staff reported since the end of April. One incident saw a nurse have hot coffee thrown down her back in the street. In many cases, the incidents seem to stem from a belief medical staff are ‘dirty’ or ‘infected’, with potential to spread the virus wherever they go.

Healthcare workers in Northern Ireland have suffered similar experiences, while there have been reports of bad behaviour plaguing pharmacies across the UK.

Photo by Philafrenzy, Creative Commons

Spitting and coughing ‘weaponised’

The fact any of us could be unwittingly carrying a deadly weapon on our skin or in our saliva is a source of anxiety for many. Others are using the threat of this to intimidate and harm others, with police officers suffering the brunt.

“Sadly, being spat at by vile individuals is nothing new for police officers. But to weaponise it and threaten to spread a deadly virus is a new low”

John Apter, chief of the Police Federation of England and Wales

This week a Bournemouth man was sentenced to eight months in prison for spitting at two police officers during an arrest. Home Secretary Priti Patel has promised to push for longer sentences for this crime, grouping it under ‘common assault and battery’.

A community issue

Those at the forefront of this crisis are risking their lives in more ways than one, and often with scant protection.

But the long-term consequences of this abuse affect us all. Poor mental health amid key workers could lead to a diminished workforce and reduced access to essential supplies and services.

Then there’s further spread of the infection as the resources and people who are fighting it are unable to continue. No-one should feel as though they are sticking their head above the parapet every time they go to work.

As one pharmacist put it: “If you abuse us, you may lose us.” It’s time for that community spirit to kick in once more. We should call out abuse whenever and wherever it occurs.

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Laura currently works in charity comms, and previously freelanced as a copywriter and editor, covering everything from travel to the arts.