Healthcare workers usually bear the brunt of an epidemic. Doctors, nurses and other medical personnel are in constant contact with people who may be infected. The cruel math of such potential exposures, multiplied over and over, inevitably takes a toll.
Covid-19 is no exception. Lost on the Frontline, a new database from the Guardian and Kaiser Health News, shows that more than 900 American healthcare workers have already paid the ultimate price in the battle against coronavirus.
What makes the deaths of these men and women especially painful is that many of them could have been prevented. Although America has applauded health workers, banged pots in their honor and offered grateful video tributes, we have consistently failed them where it mattered most.
This failure starts with a lack of adequate protective gear – essentials like masks, gloves, gowns and protective shields. Countless healthcare workers have had to reuse masks day after day. In some cases nurses were forced to wear garbage bags in lieu of actual protective equipment.
President Trump abandoned state governments and hospitals to meet critical gaps in protection for healthcare workers with little help from Washington. He also refused to use his power under the Defense Production Act – a power he used to equip border patrol units – to meet the needs of healthcare workers. When their pleas for help became public, Trump actually stood in the Rose Garden and claimed that healthcare workers lacked protective gear because they were pilfering it and selling it on the black market.
But that is not the only way in which we let our healthcare workers down.
The social media images of healthcare workers holding signs saying “Please Stay Home to Protect Those of Us Who Can’t” should haunt us all. During the second world war, our parents and grandparents made countless, burdensome sacrifices in their daily lives to provide vital resources to the troops on the frontlines. In the life-or-death struggle over Covid-19 – a struggle that has had an average monthly death toll since March comparable to that of the second world war – the sacrifices most of us were asked to make were relatively modest by comparison.
One fewer trip to a beauty parlor or a bar or a barbershop or a restaurant might have spared a doctor or a nurse. In too many cases, too many of us failed to do our part to reduce the risk to our healthcare workers.
Finally, the stubborn refusal of many Americans to wear masks around others – and the refusal of some public officials to use their power to mandate mask-wearing or even model it (including the president, until recently) – also raises risk for these frontline disease fighters. This failing is the most ironic, because claiming it is too uncomfortable or unsightly to wear a mask for 15 minutes during a trip to a grocery or hardware store has put at risk doctors and nurses who “mask up” for hours each day, without complaint, to save others.
Covid has affected all Americans, but it hasn’t affected all of us equally. Lost on the Frontline tells that story. As with Covid victims as a whole, the list of healthcare workers who have died disproportionately includes people of color. And while we still do not have complete data, it is likely that nursing will be the profession that has lost more people to Covid than any other occupation in our country.
Of the many hard days I spent coordinating the US fight against Ebola in 2014-15, none was more painful than 29 November 2014, when I spoke at the funeral of Martin Salia, a doctor who left Maryland to return to his native Sierra Leone to help cope with the devastating death toll among healthcare workers during that epidemic. Dr Salia contracted Ebola while performing surgery; by the time he was airlifted back to the US for treatment, he was too ill to be saved. At his funeral, I noted that while history is filled with all sorts of accidental heroes and unwilling heroes, “the greatest heroes are people who choose to face danger, who voluntarily put themselves at risk to help others.”
Like the first responders who raced into the Twin Towers on 9/11, the men and women who walked into hospitals and clinics and medical facilities to save others and paid with their lives are such heroes. We did not give them the equipment they needed, nor did we do everything we could have to reduce the risks they faced: that may not make their heroism larger, but it does make our duty to remember them, and to change direction in our nation’s failing response to Covid, all the more urgent.
Ronald A Klain was White House Ebola response coordinator in 2014-15, and serves on a number of advisory groups on pandemic preparedness and response. He is an adviser to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign