I am a doctor. And I am immunocompromised. I am safe at home screening patients over the phone for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, while my colleagues are marching into war with plastic water guns and papier-mâché bombs, lambs to the COVID-19 slaughter.
They are entreating people to stay at home, begging for personal protective equipment via Twitter hashtags (#GetMePPE), fashioning masks out of surgical sheets, rigging ventilators to increase their capacity as the number of confirmed cases keeps increasing. Some are living in the garage or in a separate room in their home, for fear of infecting their loved ones.
And asymptomatic elite NBA players and the Kardashian matriarch can get tested along with Mar-a-Lago moonlighters, while my colleagues at the county hospital are told that due to the scarcity of COVID-19 tests, if they do become exposed to a patient, they should call their own doctors to get tested; the hospital will not use its supply on them.
“Unconscionable” is a feather-light word to use for the response to this pandemic by those in charge. After weeks of inaction, of downplaying the pandemic, of calling it a hoax, President Donald Trump had no choice but to shift tone once this crisis was undeniable. He then stood shoulder to shoulder at press conferences, shaking hands while declaring a national emergency that his own experts said only social distancing would quell. He has failed our nation.
When you are a governor bragging about the packed restaurant that your family is dining in during this pandemic that requires you to stay home, you are essentially stealing N95 masks from the nurses in your state. When you are a U.S. representative appearing on a morning show encouraging people to go to pubs while the head of the nation’s infectious disease response is stating clearly that people need to shelter in place, you have effectively robbed the ICU staff in your district of countless needed ventilators.
“We health care workers are, and have been, on our own. We are making decisions hospital by hospital because there is no centralized response or clear guidelines.”
We health care workers are, and have been, on our own. We are making decisions hospital by hospital because there is no centralized response or clear guidelines. Surgeons had to make their own decisions about canceling elective surgeries while the surgeon general, an anesthesiologist, lectured journalists on what type of stories they should be writing. With every crucial delay, with every blunder and misstep, the toll is going to be measured in lives lost.
Health care workers have had some of the worst outcomes when confronted with this virus, dying at higher rates than expected for their ages. And yet doctors, nurses and other medical staff will be the ones treating Elon Musk’s workers, who were expected to report to the Tesla factory in California — even though the county they were in had ordered citizens to shelter in place. Who is there to protect those frontline workers from the failure of this government?
Each day we get more reports of health care workers infected, hospitalized, and dying all over the world. This week we lost the brilliant Dr. Steven Schwartz to COVID-19 in Seattle. Others will follow. They will continue to die because of the inaction of their leaders. Their lives will end because factories were not taken over by their governments to manufacture test kits and personal protective equipment in time. They will die because they are putting their limp, used masks in little brown paper bags after their 12-hour shift, to be used again tomorrow; they are wiping down their lone allotted face shields with disinfectant, or wrapping them in saran wrap, and cutting plastic Coke bottles to make new ones. They will inadvertently infect their patients because they are reusing disposable gowns, and MacGyver-ing equipment to make do with what they have to serve as many they can. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is issuing guidance about how to use bandanas and scarves to deal with the dearth.
Our heroes out the in field will not be derelict in their duties — even if they have been forced to compromise their safety by those who continue to sit in their insular cocoons and suffer no consequences. It is criminal what is being done. And beyond criminal what is not being done.
“It is criminal what is being done. And beyond criminal what is not being done.”
I want to tell you about a few people in my life, that I know or have worked with, who are forced to risk their lives because of the dysfunction of our government leaders, because of the utter failure of a health care system that is based on profit and not people. I want to plead on their behalf the way people on TV will implore the shooter brandishing a gun in their face to have mercy because they have two small children and a mom with Alzheimer’s, hoping that if the shooter sees them as a real person, maybe they’ll survive. I want you to see them not as faceless health care workers but as humans behind their reused masks. They are the ones who will pay the price of terms like “Democratic hoax.”
Amy is a brilliant general surgeon who taught herself to play the ukulele in her call room during training; now, as head of her department, she ends 72 hours on call by heading straight to the beach with her surfboard. Bhakti is an indefatigable family doctor who once deployed as a Navy doctor and now works at Urgent Care, a fierce patient advocate who is a graceful dancer and loyal friend with a sweet infant daughter and a 9-year-old son with whom she grows vegetables in the community garden plot. Douglas is a tireless nurse practitioner who works in primary care and an ER who just sent his eldest to college earlier this year and is as beloved a clinician as you can meet. Nikhil is a compassionate pulmonary critical care doctor who serves an underserved population at his hospital, is known for his wicked sense of humor, and is expecting twins later this year. Megan is a gem of a geriatrician and mom of two little ones who works at a teaching hospital and educates the next generation of doctors with patience and kindness and visits the family Christmas tree farm on weekends to see her aging parents.
There is a shooter looking down the barrel of a gun that points straight at each and every one of these people ― and every front line health care worker in this country. Once they are taken out, our first line of defense will be eroded. Many of us will get sick and more of us will die. This is a crime — and there are people directly responsible for it. Blood will be on the hands of those who have sent health care workers to war without armor, to fight battles brandishing pool noodles instead of swords.
Dipti S. Barot is a primary care doctor in the San Francisco Bay area. She is also a freelance writer.