Fighting Labor Movement Response Urgently Needed

Pat Lawlor, Neonatal Enhanced Nurse Practitioner
Socialist Party (ISA inNorthern Ireland) member

Officially, just under 100,000 healthcare workers have contracted Covid-19, with over a thousand deaths internationally. The reality is likely to be far worse, as the World Health Organisation have reported almost 25,000 cases of Covid-19 in healthcare workers in April 2020 alone.

The lack of official data on infections and deaths among healthcare workers is as scandalous as it is intentional. Many governments have failed to systematically record infection rates and deaths of healthcare staff from this pandemic. This is an attempt to downplay and hide their gross criminal negligence in ensuring our health services were properly prepared; with routine staff testing and enough appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) for this pandemic.

Internationally, the situation is crying out for fully resourced public healthcare systems. Privately owned healthcare facilities, manufacturers of medical supplies, medical engineering and pharmaceutical companies must be brought into public ownership, to ensure mass production of all the essential equipment. However, the policy of governments around the world has been to put the profits and the interests of the 1% above the safety of health workers, their patients and communities.

Private companies are laughing all the way to the bank. Governments, shoring up the capitalist system, have thrown billions of dollars in public money at big business. Money to rent private hospitals and hotel beds, buying ventilators and tracing apps from companies with no experience that don’t work, buying testing kits and poorly made PPE at hundreds of times pre-pandemic prices. This is another concrete example of the inefficient, parasitic and brutal nature of capitalism that exploits any opportunity to maximise profits. This approach can only result in more needless infections and deaths in healthcare workers as this pandemic continues and into the coming second wave.

Community Health and Social Care Nightmare

Community health and social care workers have been one of the sections of workers on the sharp end of government mismanagement, criminal and immoral neglect. Across Europe, Britain and North America, the unfolding story is appalling and horrific in the extremes, as care homes and community workers have been left to flounder with no support or resources and become overwhelmed with the extent of the pandemic. Many UK private sector care homes continue to report receiving little or no PPE from their employer or the government. There are shocking reports of residential and care homes with scores of residents dead and dying.

The most recent data collated across five European countries suggests the mortality rate is between 42 — 57% in care and residential homes. A research team hosted by the London School of Economics and the International Long Term Care Policy Network (LSE, LTCPN) reported, “We’ve been aware since March that the deaths in care homes were growing very fast in Italy and Spain and we were very keen to track this. We were expecting the number to be big, and we were really, really surprised.”

These results are frightening. 90% of care homes in Belgium have confirmed positive cases, and 42% of the country’s Covid-related deaths have come from them. In France, the rate is close to 45%. In Italy, mortality among care home residents is 53% of the country’s total death toll. In Ireland, care homes accounted for 54% of deaths and more than half of the nationwide total. In Spain, regional data indicates 57% of deaths have occurred in care homes, the highest share among the countries studied. Across Britain, the accounting was initially more complicated as the Tory government fudged the numbers, only releasing daily figures of deaths from hospitals and not nursing homes or community settings. Now that care home and community deaths are beginning to be included, Britain has the worst coronavirus death toll in Europe.

Across France, Italy, Britain, Spain and the United States of America, it has been reported that as many as 50% of community care workers are infected with Covid-19 due to the lack of appropriate PPE and routine systematic testing. Many community health workers report they have had to buy their own expensive masks and PPE or make their own. In other reports from staff who have received PPE from their employer, they have said that they have been told not to change or replace their PPE until their break, or in some occasions to use the same PPE until the end of their shift to save money! These figures are almost unimaginable and indicate how community health workers have put themselves literally in the breech between life and death to do all they can to protect the most vulnerable in our society with little or no protection.

Most of the outbreaks are in privately run facilities, with a minority in a state-run or NHS (in Britain) health facilities. This is unsurprising, as even with the savage cuts to public health services, state-run care homes remain better staffed, and better resourced with enhanced training than private residential homes which run services on a shoestring to maximise profits. Across the world, the reports from community care were consistent until the death toll became a public outrage: forgotten healthcare workers, left to fend for themselves with little or no basic protective equipment, leaving staff and patients vulnerable. Public pressure has forced governments to put millions into propping up these care facilities. If there was any remaining doubt, this has illustrated that the private sector community and residential care home industry is a failed enterprise. The only solution is for it to be taken back into a publicly-owned healthcare system organised and run by the workers who know it best.

Acute and Hospital Workers Face Impossible Situation

In the acute care and hospital settings, many of the same issues facing healthcare workers overlap. A decade or more of neoliberal austerity has savaged the provision of high quality healthcare worldwide. This has resulted in the refusal of governments to accept the scientific advice and prioritise the maintenance of the capitalist profits at all costs. The ongoing scandal of the Tory government’s refusal to ensure the availability of adequate and appropriate PPE is a concrete example. This left our hospital healthcare workers disgracefully unprepared, leading to the hundreds of unnecessary deaths.

The impact of the ongoing overwhelming intensity of care provided by staff in Covid-19 hospitals and intensive care units will have a serious impact on the mental health of these workers. Many of these staff have been working relentlessly for weeks in an extremely hostile environment, night and day during twelve hour shifts. These staff are highly trained and experienced. However, no amount of training could prepare any worker for the stress and anxiety of dealing with this pandemic and level of tragic deaths faced on a daily basis. The International Council of Nurses (ICN) have raised warnings about the increased levels of anxiety and stress for staff working during the Covid-19 crisis in countries around the world.

Their recent survey indicated a third of respondents described “their mental health as bad during the Covid-19 crisis.” Many highlighted anxiety, overwork and fear of being infected as “taking their toll” on their mental health and wellbeing. This is extremely concerning, indicating an increasing risk of post-traumatic and other stress-related disorders. The survey indicated “all staff were at risk of psychological distress, over-reliance on negative coping mechanisms, negative emotions and destabilisation of existing psychiatric conditions. It also highlighted that “these risks were “magnified” for health professionals by issues such as the death of patients and colleagues, and frustration with employment situations, such as staff shortages and personal protective equipment.

Dealing with this situation cannot be left to governments who have failed health workers at every turn. It is essential that these issues facing staff are taken up immediately by the trade union movement as part of a struggle for adequate health and safety provisions. Staff must be supported right now to deal with any immediate and potential mental health issues.

Fighting Labor Movement Response Urgently Needed
The trade union movement nationally and internationally must stamp their authority on protecting workers and communities during this pandemic with decisive direction, support and action for workers. Unfortunately, this has not been the case in any real way. Many senior trade union leaders have not taken an independent class approach defending workers and communities, but have fallen in behind their own governments’ response to the pandemic.

This has been reflected in toothless demands for clarification and reassurances on health and safety issues, which have fallen on deaf ears. However there has been some important heroic independent action by local unions, branch members and workers across the world, as they take to the streets in socially-distanced protests and workplace action in defence of their jobs and health and safety.

This is an extremely important development as workers, rank and file union activists and members are finding ways to take ownership and control of their own health and safety and working environments. It is essential that these protests continue and are fully supported by the trade union movement as a whole. Trade union activists and members should begin to discuss how these protests can be coordinated and linked up into militant member-led campaigns throughout the trade union movement with support from local communities. This will be essential in preparation for the larger working-class battles that will come in the post-pandemic period.