During the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, as state and territory governments in Australia attempted to curb the spread of the coronavirus, attention was focused on a group that came, globally, to be known as ‘frontline workers’, which included health workers. In this article, we interrogate the construction of health workers as ‘frontline workers’ during the COVID-19 pandemic. We argue that this framing supported the narrative that the dangers to which health workers were exposed, which included threats to their lives and wellbeing, was an unfortunate but inevitable part of the war against the common enemy (COVID-19). The effect was to divert attention from what should have been the primary focus: ensuring that health workers had the equipment and conditions to carry out their jobs safely and effectively. We argue that an alternative and more appropriate understanding of the role of health workers during a pandemic – and the COVID-19 pandemic in particular – is that health workers are human rights defenders.
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