We’re All in This Together: Support and Solidarity for Our Heroes on the Front Lines

March 31, 2020 | 9:17 am
JC Gellidon/Unsplash
Kathleen Rest
Former Executive Director

As COVID-19 continues its exponential growth here at home, there is plenty of material to post in my Profiles in Cowardice series — like the confusion, disinformation and rosy forecasts coming from the White House on a daily basis. Or the unconscionable lack of testing and the unpardonable delays in getting basic protections to our nation’s workers who are putting themselves on the front-line of this pandemic every day. I honestly wouldn’t know where to begin.

So, I am shifting the frame today to Profiles in Courage.

Heroes in health care and emergency response

Health care providers, first responders, and hospital workers of all stripes (e.g., technicians, transporters, housekeepers, food service workers) are top of mind and in everyone’s prayers. They are caring for those gravely ill with COVID-19, in addition to other acutely ill patients and those arriving in their emergency rooms – who may or may not be carrying the virus. They are working grueling shifts. And far too many of these providers are doing so without adequate protection to keep themselves and their patients safe. Their pleas for help have been loud and heartbreaking. (See the twitter hashtag #GetMePPE) As their institutions scramble for masks, face shields, and gowns, many health care workers are facing the unthinkable situation of being forced to work with make-shift protections (like bandanas!) or go without them altogether. Adding to the stress, some are now facing pay cuts, unpaid furloughs, and suspension of employer contributions to their retirement plans!

All at the same time that many of these heroic caregivers are being forced to make highly stressful life-and-death decisions. Hospitals are already facing a shortage of ventilators and beds, and physicians and ethicists are providing advice on rationing scarce medical resources (here, here). And then, at the end of lengthy and stressful shifts, these caregivers go home and face incredibly difficult choices on how to protect their loved ones given their unknown exposure status. From attempting isolation to resigning themselves to the near-futility of such efforts in a small or close-contact household, they do what they can to protect their families.

The pandemic does not give a time-out to our firefighters, police, and emergency medical technicians (EMTs); as always, they are there and continuing to put their health and safety on the line. And they now have new risks and uncertainties to contend with. They face the same personal protection dilemmas as hospital workers, as they respond to situations in which exposure and disease risks are unknown. They face the same issues and stresses when they go home to their families at the end of their shifts. And we are now seeing reports of responders testing positive to the virus (e.g., here, here).

Public health heroes

Often behind the scenes, our nation’s public health workers and experts are working around the clock. They are in our federal, state, and local public health agencies – in labs, in offices, behind computers. They are in our universities and non-governmental organizations, many no doubt working from home. They are doing scientific and medical research; they are tracking, modeling, predicting, developing resources, communicating and advising both policy makers and the public. They are critical purveyors of and informants on preparedness and response. They provide the institutional memory of previous epidemics and public health emergencies.

It saddens me greatly to see that some policy makers and members of the public are not listening to them and are not following their advice. Some are targeting our nation’s top expert and are even spinning conspiracy theories. [I feel compelled to give a special shout-out to Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. He is truly a profile in courage.]

The heroes we need right now are everywhere

Millions of workers across the country are providing the goods and services our families and communities are relying on in this time of crisis. They, too, are on the frontlines of this epidemic, putting themselves and their families at risk. They are in our grocery stores, pharmacies, hotels, and gas stations. They are in warehouses and in delivery vans, public transit systems, and airplanes. They are in our nursing homes and extended care facilities. They are in the fields planting and harvesting our food, and in the supply chain that processes it for our consumption. They are the sanitation workers picking up our garbage. They are the postal workers delivering our mail. They are the utility and public sector workers that keep our lights on and our water running. They are scientists and technicians working furiously in labs to develop vaccines.

And lastly, I would be remiss if I did not shine a spotlight on the heroic efforts of our nation’s journalists. They are reporting from the front-lines – telling the stories and providing updates and information in real-time. They are fact checking and asking tough questions, risking personal attack and ridicule by our President – while attending White House press briefings in the close quarters of the press room.

Support and solidarity

Last week, I participated in a virtual meeting in which labor leaders shared heart-wrenching stories about what workers are experiencing. Job loss, fear, fatigue, stress, and incredible dedication in the face of it all. We shared tears and ideas. This devastating crisis demands both immediate and longer-term action. Without taking time to wordsmith and polish, here are some that come to mind. And there is no corner on good ideas, easy or bold, so feel free to add yours.

  • No brainer: strictly adhere to expert advice on social distancing. [I particularly liked the following reframe: Practice spatial distancing with social solidarity.] We are all in this together, and we all have a role to play. Collective action is paramount.
  • Stand in rock solid solidarity in calling on the federal government to immediately address the urgent need for personal protective equipment for our health care workers and others who are putting themselves at risk.
  • Rapidly increase and expand testing; free of charge and without regard to immigration status. We need more data to track the outbreak, identify its spread and emerging hot spots, inform precautions and policies, and enhance understanding of the coronavirus itself. Or as I recently heard Dr. Fauci say on TV: without data “we don’t know what we don’t know.”
  • Provide paid sick leave to workers.
  • Maintain health insurance coverage during layoffs or reduced work hours.
  • Adjust shifts so people can rest.
  • Demand that front-line workers in hospitals do not see cuts in pay at this critical time.
  • Demand that OSHA issue an emergency temporary standard on airborne infectious agents for health care and other essential workers
  • Ensure that corporate bailouts come with effective oversight to ensure a safer, healthier, and more sustainable future.
  • Address this pandemic as the health and economic crisis it is; call out and protest efforts to politicize it.
  • Stand up for science and evidence and call out lies and misinformation when you see them.

Finally, to show our collective appreciation for all these essential workers, join the #ClapBeacuseWeCare event on Friday, April 3.