Unsafe working environments, precarious employment conditions, and staff shortages have played a crucial role in the spread of Covid-19 infection in elderly care in Sweden, posing a severe threat to both the workers and the elderly. 

According to a survey study by the Swedish trade union Kommunal, staff has experienced helplessness and frustration because their working conditions have not enabled them to provide the care they wish for the elderly. The survey reports responses from safety- and workplace representatives from 1,048 elderly care homes, representing 50% of the total in Sweden.

Lack of PPE and time for hygiene routines

Elderly care homes that had more than one case of Covid-19 have had staff working without the right personal protective equipment (PPE); and almost a third (30%) of the survey respondents suspected that staff have become infected during working hours.

The lack of personal protective equipment increases the risk of the spread of the Covid-19 infection, with 54% of highly infected workplaces having staff working without the right PPE.  In one elderly care home where several residents had Covid-19, the employer had provided the staff only with self-manufactured face masks made of vacuum cleaner bags. ‘Kommunal’ Chief Safety Officer blew the whistle, and with the support of LO-TCO legal office, the case was brought to an administrative court, which ruled that the workers are entitled to face mask with filter FFP2.

In workplaces with several cases of Covid-19, staff also reported difficulty in following hygiene routines, due to a lack of clear instructions, including for temporary staff; and a lack of time to follow the routines.

Precarious contracts and lack of staff

Staff shortages in the elderly care sector have been evident before and during the pandemic. Besides, many care homes have a high proportion of fixed-term employees, who often lack the financial security to say no to jobs. The survey shows that elderly care homes with a higher spread of the Covid-19 infection had a larger proportion of hourly waged staff and staff having to go to work despite presenting Covid-19 symptoms, than care homes with no infections.

The Covid-19 pandemic does not happen in a vacuum. Its grave impact on the elderly care sector stems from several decades of cutting resources, which in turn has led to a deterioration of staff working conditions. During the Covid-19 pandemic, this situation has come to a head, and staff has paid a high price in the form of high sickness rates, and emotional strain.

*The report ‘Pandemi på äldreboendet – En rapport om den Svenska äldreomsorgen innan och under Coronapandemin’ is available here (in Swedish only; English translation possibly published later)

Photo credits: rido