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COVID-19: are not all workers ‘essential’?
  1. Sara De Matteis1,2
  1. 1 Department of Medical Sciences and Public Health, University of Cagliari, Cagliari, Italy
  2. 2 National Heart and Lung Institute, Imperial College London, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Sara De Matteis, Department of Medical Sciences and Public Health, University of Cagliari, Cagliari 09124, Italy; sara.dem{at}

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During the current COVID-19 pandemic ‘essential’ workers have been praised daily by the mass media (and even applauded from balconies) as (involuntary) ‘heroes’ of our society. But who are they? The International Labour Organization has estimated that globally, there are 136 million workers in ‘essential’ industry sectors such as ‘human health and social work’ (ie, healthcare, residential care and social workers), emergency and personal services, critical manufacturing, energy, transport, and agriculture.1 However, an agreed exhaustive definition of ‘essential’ work is lacking, and maybe it’s impossible to achieve.

Regrettably, most of the ‘essential’ workers have felt let-down by their governments by experiencing a lack of adequate health and safety measures, personal protective equipment (PPE) and occupational injury/disease compensation.2 Unsurprisingly, healthcare workers (HCWs), being at the forefront of the COVID-19 fight, have paid the highest price, physically and mentally:3 in Italy, the National Workers’ Compensation Authority reported in December 2020 that around 70% of over 100 000 occupational COVID-19 claims were from ‘human health and social work’ activities, and 60% of the 366 fatal cases occurred among nurses.4 These figures, likely an underestimation of the true occupational health burden as they are based on COVID-19 compensation claims only,5 have sadly demonstrated that ‘essential’ was only referred to the work provided by HCWs and not to the workers themselves. Instead, protecting HCWs should be a top priority to not only avoid healthcare systems’ collapse, …

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  • Contributors The author conceptualised the idea and drafted this editorial.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

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