Nurses today are waging war worldwide against COVID-19, a foe as formidable as any in recorded human history.

Under levels of duress more likely to be felt in a battle setting, nurses are staffing hospitals and clinics, pulling long shifts, wrestling with trauma and exhaustion, and putting themselves at risk of infection to care for people in need.

The fact that nurses are the most trusted profession is generally recognized. However, what is often less recognized, and what COVID-19 has brought into sharp view, is the ever-evolving, ever-expanding role of the nurse in the healthcare system—a trend that is accelerating with this pandemic.

“Patients feel that they are listened to when they talk to a nurse, and that they are really cared for — that’s one thing we are able to do at the bedside that physicians often don’t have time to do,” said Emma Mason, a registered nurse who works for MSD (known as Merck & Co in the US and Canada) who is now volunteering in her local hospital, specifically as part of its COVID-19 response.

“Right now, visitation is so restricted in hospitals, we’re having to be the bridge that connects the patient to their family.” It is fitting that in a year in which the important role nurses play has come into sharp focus, the World Health Organization (WHO) has designated 2020 the Year of the Nurse and the Midwife.

Nursing is the largest occupational group in the healthcare sector, accounting for roughly 59% of health professionals, according to WHO. But that’s not enough.

There are just under 28 million nurses globally, about 5.9 million short of what the world needs to adequately care for the growing population, according to a recent report.

The WHO will join its partners in a year-long celebration that advocates further investment in this workforce, while educating the public about the value nurses bring and the challenging conditions they often face.

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