In this third session of the webinar series on ‘Wellbeing in Southeast Asia’, Dr Subadhra Rai examined the consequences of media portrayals on the well-being of healthcare professionals in Southeast Asia, with particular focus on the role of nurses during the Covid-19 Pandemic. Such portrayals are seen to have significant implications on the further development of the nursing profession.
REGIONAL SOCIAL AND CULTURAL STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
Well-being in Southeast Asia Webinar Series
Wednesday, 5 May 2021 – ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute organised a webinar on “Why Being a Hero is Bad for Your Health during the Covid-19 Pandemic in Southeast Asia”, the third in the series on “Well-being in Southeast Asia” supported by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS). The webinar was delivered by Dr Subhadra Rai, a Registered Nurse and freelance educator, and was moderated by Dr Kevin S.Y. Tan, Visiting Senior Research Fellow of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
The webinar opened with remarks by Mr Christian Echle, Director of Regional Programme Political Dialogue Asia of KAS who noted the diverse challenges that healthcare professionals face since the onset of the pandemic. He said that it is important to reflect on what needs to be done for healthcare professionals and other frontline workers in the long run.
Dr Rai began her talk by highlighting the changes in media portrayals of healthcare professionals since the onset of the pandemic. She emphasised the importance of analysing the ways healthcare professionals are being portrayed in the media as these narratives can potentially affect their overall well-being. Since the onset of the pandemic, portrayals of nurses usually dwell on two extremes. The first extreme depicts nurses as ‘dirty’ or ‘polluted’ by disease, leading to them being subjected to frequent abuse by the public. For example, Dr Rai noted that healthcare professionals in many parts of the world have been ostracised, assaulted and denied access to basic services such as public transportation at the beginning of the pandemic. Healthcare professionals were frequently shunned by neighbours and communities, not least due to public perceptions of frontline workers as virus carriers. All this, however, shifted to the second extreme, where nurses are celebrated as heroes, due to changing media recognition of their increasingly crucial roles during the pandemic. Subsequent narratives of healthcare professionals, therefore, began to take a far more positive tone.
Amidst greater public approval, more nurses around the world became more willing to display their ‘battle scars’ from wearing their PPEs and masks for prolonged hours, due to their efforts in fighting the pandemic. Their work became frequently articulated with military metaphors. Dr Rai suggested that this shift in media portrayals of healthcare professionals was in part led by efforts from the state and civil society. In Singapore, for example, the state has stepped up in offering physical and social protection for healthcare professionals and other frontline workers, such as providing PPEs and proper masks and publicly expressing their appreciation for this group of ‘heroes’. This was also similarly observed in other parts of Southeast Asia in countries such as Thailand and Laos where Dr Rai has had experience with.
While displaying our appreciation for healthcare professionals is important in boosting their morale, Dr Rai emphasised that it is important not to over-romanticise the use of ‘hero-ization’ narratives. Based on her survey with over fifty nurses, Dr Rai found that their reactions towards media portrayals of healthcare professionals were mixed. On the one hand, some felt that public expressions of appreciation, albeit being overdue, contributed to affirming their efforts. On the other hand, others also highlighted the less known dark side to this ‘hero-ization’ narrative. This was noted in instances of nurses who regrettably lost their lives due to the exceedingly high pressure and unrealistic expectations they faced in their jobs.
For many healthcare professionals around the world, this pandemic has also cast serious questions regarding the consequences of going beyond the limit of one’s duty and capacity. Rather than affirming healthcare professionals as heroes – a narrative that implicitly comes with a set of supererogatory expectations to perform more than what a job requires, Dr Rai suggested that this narrative could be reframed towards an emphasis on their professionalism. Recognising nurses as healthcare professionals could offer a space to speak about their vulnerabilities without guilt or fear. In closing, Dr Rai also emphasised that healthcare professionals, particularly nurses, need to be equipped with the skills of what could be known as ‘pandemic nursing’ to bolster their resilience and capabilities in their line of work.
The webinar concluded with a Question and Answer session. The online audience engaged the speakers on a variety of issues, which included treatment towards nurses in Southeast Asia; the role of the state and civil society in protecting nurses; the role of a transnational advocacy network of nurses in Asia; and future developments within the nursing profession in a pandemic-driven world.