In honor of National Nurses Day, Donald Trump invited a group of nurses to the White House on Wednesday afternoon to thank them for their dedicated service to their patients and for the sacrifices they've made in this difficult time.
This comes the day after Trump referred to reopening the country and the "Yankee stadium of death" that will result (a gross understatement of actual projections).
Meanwhile the hashtags #NationalNursesDay and #ThankYouNurses have been trending on Twitter with messages of gratitude. It's the literal least we can do as a nation to acknowledge the crucial role of the people who are at the front lines of fighting a deadly pandemic. Of course, if we wanted to a little bit more for them—just a little bit to honor the people we love to call heroes—we would listen to their desperate pleas for more help and more caution. We would try not to turn their hospitals into living hells.
Just last week National Nurses United, the largest organization of registered nurses in the US, issued a statement in opposition to the push to "reopen the country." They insist that we aren't ready and call for significant improvements to hospital safety standards and to the level of personal protective equipment provided, "Otherwise, hospitals will continue to be places that spread infection, and nurses and health care workers will continue to get sick and sidelined, die, and be unable to care for the next wave of patients." They also call on President Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act in order to produce necessary equipment. He could do so at any time but has so far deferred to private industry and friendly businesses instead.
The statement goes on to address the real economic hardships that are driving much of the push to reopen and advocates for a set of solutions that would prioritize the collective well-being and avoid overwhelming our healthcare system: "People in America must have enhanced unemployment benefits and paid sick time and family leave; food security; housing; healthcare; and other social supports for people who are unemployed or unable to work … we can organize our society in ways that are beneficial to everyone, as opposed to a handful of billionaires."
It's honestly the least that we as a nation should be doing as the devastating flaws in our system are laid bare by this crisis, but at the state and federal level we continue to opt instead for the least we can do—which is next to nothing.
Luke Adams, one of the nurses being honored, traveled from Pennsylvania to New York City to provide much needed help for the city's overwhelmed healthcare system. He slept in his car for days until a local family took him into their home. It's a nice story, and Adams represents the kind of noble sacrifice that good and caring people make in times of unavoidable crisis. But if we accept—as the Trump administration, business leaders, and right-wing pundits continue to insist—that a massive increase in COVID-19 deaths is an acceptable downside to boosting the economy, then we are thrusting that crisis upon healthcare workers and forcing them to make those sacrifices against their will.
While we all seem to have accepted the idea that we've made it past the worst of the pandemic, the reality is that the death toll has barely begun to plateau in most of the country. We are nowhere near the federally recommended guidelines for reopening—14 days of steadily declining cases—and as we continue to pursue an agenda of accelerating economic recovery ahead of any reasonable schedule, we are ensuring that the nurses we are thanking and honoring today will face horrific, traumatizing conditions in the weeks and months ahead.
Already coronavirus deaths in the US outnumber the American soldiers who died in the entirety of the Vietnam war, and the people on the frontlines will likewise carry the psychological damage of the devastation that we are containing to our hospitals—while we push for a return to offices, nail salons, and restaurants as though everything is normal.
Here's how far we are from normal: There isn't even enough time to clean rooms as new patients are moved in to replace the dead. Patients are dying in hallways and overflow tents. Nurses and doctors are forced to choose whose life is worth saving while refrigerated trucks are shipped in to store the bodies before they're sent to mass graves. As one doctor in New Orleans put it, "We are in the valley of the shadow of death right now."
These are not experiences that anyone will have an easy time moving on from. In some places it has started to get better, but the worst is ahead if we reopen. They are risking their lives and destroying their mental health for us, and we are telling them it's not enough—that we are fine with making the problem worse for the sake of our comfort.
The voices of the wealthy, the bored, and the ignorant rise up as one to say, "Do more. We want to go back to work, to send our kids back to school, to go golfing again. We want to get back to our lives and back to getting rich on oil stocks and the labor of underpaid workers. If that means you need to enter the next ring of hell, then that's a sacrifice you're just going to have to make."
We can't keep thrusting nurses, doctors, hospital staff into dangerous, traumatic circumstances rather than making necessary, humane changes to the structure of our society. If people can't pay for rent or food right now, then we should provide for them—not push them back to work. We can afford it. We have billionaires who can pay for it. That's the value of being the richest nation in history—of living in a society that produces so much abundance. But we prefer to throw sickness and death at nurses with a patronizing, "Thanks, guys! You're the real heroes."
Enough. We aren't allowed to call these people heroes, or to perform these shows of superficial gratitude, if we want to continue treating them as fodder in a war against minority communities and modest social reforms. We need to give them what they need—what they're asking for—and stop forcing them to sacrifice at the altar of heartless consumption.
They've given us enough. It's time for us to give back.