As coronavirus cases pass 3 million worldwide, it’s clear that the pandemic has disproportionately affected health workers. A shortage of gloves, masks, and other personal protective equipment has meant that those caring for the very ill are increasingly becoming ill themselves.
In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that around 19 percent of confirmed coronavirus cases have been health workers. In the United Kingdom, one-third of National Health Service staff and key workers tested for the coronavirus have been confirmed positive. There is a danger that as more health workers fall ill—and in some cases die—from COVID-19, already stretched health care systems could suffer a shortage of trained medical personnel. Looking at the top 20 countries with the most coronavirus cases (as of 10 a.m. May 4), that danger is more acute in some nations than others.
Germany and Switzerland, followed closely by Spain, Italy, and Russia, have the highest number of physicians per capita. In a worrying sign for the United States and Canada, their number of physicians per capita is closer to middle-income countries such as China than it is to some of its economic peers, such as Germany. It’s no surprise that India, the poorest country in the top 20, also has the lowest density of physicians.
When it comes to nursing personnel, the picture is especially grim for Spain and Italy—the countries with the second- and third-highest coronavirus death tolls, respectively. The two countries have a relatively low number of nurses compared to other European Union countries, suggesting these front-line staff are particularly vulnerable to any reduction in workforce.
As COVID-19 seems to do the most damage with older populations, the relative age of the medical workforce gains importance when defining how resilient each country will ultimately be. Nine countries in the top 20 have a physician workforce where more than 30 percent are over the age of 55, including the five of the top six worst-hit countries. The numbers are especially worrying for Italy, the only country in the set where a majority of physicians are over 55. China doesn’t report figures for the age of its physicians, although female physicians must retire at 55 and male physicians at 60.