Fighting to Save Lives in a World That Doesn’t Value Them

Dispatches from the Frontlines of Care

April 6, 2020

We are proud to have a strong analytical focus on social reproduction at Spectre. The current pandemic is tragically proving that which social reproduction theorists have long emphasized: that work needed to sustain life and life-making, such as nursing, teaching, cleaning – in other words, care work – is essential for any society to function. Indeed, it is care work that makes all other work possible.

A social reproduction focus, however, is not simply a philosophical position. It is simultaneously a political project. This is why during this time of crisis, we want our readers to hear the voices of workers fighting on the frontlines of care. We kick off the series with a leader of the US-based National Nurses Union, Bonnie Castillo. The work of nurses, refuse workers, teachers, and farmworkers, among others, is sustaining us through this crisis. Our series Dispatches from the Frontlines of Care is designed to remind ourselves that it is the stockbroker and the corporate executive who are disposable, and we want a world where they remain so.

If you have story for us please write to the series editor Tithi Bhattacharya at tithi@spectrejournal.com.

 

Bandanas, scarves, and trash bags: that’s the kind of armor many nurses around the world are using right now to fight COVID-19. But governments, employers, and even the World Health Organization (WHO) don’t seem to care. Their guidelines claim nurses and health care workers don’t need the highest level of personal protective equipment (PPE) during a pandemic.

As of late March, nurses in America have been told that loose surgical masks and bandanas are okay to use as protection. Hospitals with remaining stock of PPE — N-95 respirators and other protective gear — are often keeping it under lock and key in a manager’s office, while telling nurses to use the same mask for the entire shift or even a week. Nurses are also being told that they don’t need to be tested when they are exposed to a COVID-19 patient, and that they can come right back to work in just a couple days if they’re not showing symptoms.

Of course, none of this is scientifically sound. But nurses are used to being gaslighted and told that work without the right resources and protections is “safe patient care.” For decades, we have been told that our employers need to saddle us with too many patients to safely care for at once, that they can’t afford to stock enough supplies, that they are just cutting corners so that they can keep the hospital open for patients. We are told that our patients can’t have guaranteed health care through Medicare for All because it would cost too much.

But they tell us all of this while hospital corporations are reaping astronomical profits. COVID-19 is just more of the same. Our governments and our employers had not just one chance, but many chances to prepare for this pandemic. They had test runs during SARS, H1N1, MERS, and Ebola. After COVID-19 cases emerged in China, there were even months to mass produce tests and protective equipment before a case appeared in the United States. But the Trump administration and employers didn’t prioritize saving lives over saving money.

The Trump administration and employers didn’t prioritize saving lives over saving money. Nurses did.

Nurses did. In January, NNU’s global arm, Global Nurses United (GNU), sent a letter to the World Health Organization demanding the highest level of protections for nurses and healthcare providers around the world. Since then, 27 GNU affiliate nations have come together in global solidarity on a COVID-19 webinar, to share information and stand together in solidarity for change.

And National Nurses United has continued its demands of the Trump administration, Congress, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), asking them to step up protections. When the CDC did just the opposite, weakening its guidelines on health care worker protections, NNU nurses responded by holding a national COVID-19 day of action on March 10, from Georgia and Illinois to California. NNU also petitioned the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to adopt an emergency temporary standard on emerging infectious diseases and launched a petition demanding Congress do everything in its power to protect nurses, which quickly earned hundreds of thousands of signatures.

Thankfully, nurses are used to standing up for lifesaving protections for our patients, when hospital employers and elected officials do not. But we all face a grave situation: When nurses and health care workers are reduced to using bandanas against a deadly virus, we don’t know how many of us will be able to remain at our patients’ sides when we become infected ourselves. We know we are not expendable, and are likely the only buffer between potential healing or horrible suffering and perhaps death for thousands of patients.

We live in a country with a health care system that profits off of human suffering, with no real labor protections, with outrageous inequality, environmental injustice, racial injustice, and so many more threats to our patients. COVID-19 just amplifies existing societal plagues, and fighting this pandemic isn’t enough to protect people and save lives. We can’t go back to business as usual.

We have to keep fighting for a world that values life first.

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