Remember the dead: fight for the living

| 23rd April 2020

Health care workers stand in the street in counter-protest to hundreds of people who gathered at the State Capitol to demand the stay-at-home order be lifted in Denver, Colo., on Sunday, April 19, 2020. Photos by Alyson McClaran.

The protests by public health workers for PPE hold portents for how we globally respond to the threat of climate breakdown.

We must rescue ourselves. That means, above all, green new deals, and climate jobs, building renewable energy, renewable transport, sustainable buildings, deep forests and all the rest. That would end mass unemployment.

Something new is emerging in the world, and it’s important. At 11.00 on Tuesday morning the staff will come out of St. Thomas and Guys - two large teaching hospitals in central London.

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They will do so in remembrance of the health workers across the country who have died in the epidemic. And they will then hold a rally to demand personal protective equipment (PPE). They will still be providing emergency cover inside the hospital.

Their slogan will be: Remember the Dead and Fight for the Living.

Protest

The union at both hospitals has negotiated this walkout with management. Staff will be providing emergency cover, and the hospital is so hard pressed that many will have to come back in almost immediately.

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They will not be alone. A network of several hundred health workers in the UK are discussing similar actions at many hospitals.

Many of them are talking about staying out for half an hour or an hour. The grassroots workplace organisers are also trying for action by bus drivers, construction workers, care workers and others still at work.

Their action is part of a day of action by health workers in several countries. I am writing this article because I want you to spread the word, and take action if you can.

Health workers have already protested publicly in Malawi, South Africa, Peru, Mexico, the United States, Puerto Rico, Pakistan and India. Those are the ones I found in two hours of searching the internet. I have no doubt there are many more.

Virus

It is strange that protective equipment should be such a flashpoint in so many places. We are talking about masks, gowns, gloves, respirators, and plastic shields for the face. These are cheap, easy to make, low tech items. This is gear health workers use every day of their working lives.

Join an international Zoom call on Saturday about the day of protest. More information here.

In the UK - as in much of the world - staff in too many hospitals are running out, or have run out, of these items. This is killing staff.

They are particularly vulnerable because their patients with coronavirus are very sick, and so breathing out a high ‘viral load’.

As staff keep saying in many countries: it is wrong that they should be exposed to such an unnecessary death as a punishment for saving lives.

More important, though, each time a health or care worker catches the virus, they are in close contact with many other people.

Batons

And those people are often very ill, elderly, weak and vulnerable. Infected health and care staff are the great multiplier for the epidemic.

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Those workers know that. That’s why they are so angry. Their most basic values have been betrayed. And they know every time they go to work they place their families at risk.

I used to be a hospital worker in Britain, and was on strike several times. The tactics of protests and strikes by health workers are always complicated. You cannot leave people to die.

Solutions vary. In Balochistan, in Pakistan, dozens of doctors slept in the street in front of the hospital to protest the lack of PPE.

They got up in the morning and went into work. Then the police attacked, beating the doctors with batons and herding them into arrest wagons. They were held for 48 hours.

Emergency

In Lahore, Pakistan, the young doctors association took a different route, launching a hunger strike for PPE. Nurses and other staff joined them. They are all still working, just not eating. This is Day 6.

I was a occupational therapy technician in a hospital in East London in 1982. We went on eight one-day strikes. The hospital was so short-staffed, all the time, that patients were constantly wetting their beds before a nurse could get to them.

We ran token pickets, most of whom were nurses whose shifts started later or earlier. We went to the local council workers and said to them, ‘We can’t really strike effectively, because its your parents in the hospital. So you strike with us.’

Next time we came out, they did too.

There is a useful formula for emergency cover in any hospital. It’s the level of staff cover management provide at seven o’clock on Sunday morning.

Strike

At Cook County Jail in Chicago, more than 100 staff and more than 500 inmates have covid. Many of the overcrowded prisoners have begun refusing food in protest.

At Mt. Sinai hospital in the Bronx, at the center of the epidemic in the US, staff come out to protest on the grass. Only about 20 of them, standing six feet apart, holding home made signs.

At that point, already, the majority of the dead in New York did not make it to hospital. They had been working for days without protection, and they were running out of pain killers for the patients.

Ten days later there were nationwide protests by their union, National Nurses United.

Some protests I heard about are big. There is a national strike by nurses in Malawi. Some are very small. In Kabul, Afghanistan, one man stood outside the hospital where his brother, a doctor, had just died.

Protect

That man said on social media, ‘“My brother died here at this hospital and now all of our family members are infected with the disease because [the hospital officials] delayed the test results for nine days…

"We all are going to die and this corrupt government is busy with corruption. My entire family is in danger. My sister died. Two of my brothers died, and now I am also suffering from the deadly virus.”

His video went viral in Afghanistan. One person protesting matters now.

In Britain one pregnant junior doctor stood alone outside the official residence of the prime minister, in her blue scrubs and a mask, holding up a home-made placard saying, ‘Protect Healthcare Workers’. She made the front pages of the national papers and the TV news.

You don’t have to be working to protest on Tuesday. If your mum or dad is in a care home, and you can’t visit, you still stand outside for an hour on Tuesday, with a home made sign saying ‘Protect workers and residents.’

Poorest

You can stand outside your local hospital, or a bus garage, or the postal sorting office – anywhere workers need protection. Or just spread the word.

The reason I want you to spread the word is that protests by health, care and other essential workers now will have important consequences in the weeks and years to come.

First, a new kind of hero is emerging in the world. A new standard of heroism emerges too – women and men are showing extraordinary kindness, courage, hard work, human decency and saving lives.

All over the world, corporate leaders are frantic with fear of the economic consequences of the lockdown. They are organizing, in every way they can, to get us back to work and let the virus rip through the land.

And in most countries of the world, they will lift the lockdowns without enough testing, without enough care, without enough hospital beds and without enough medicine, and it will be the poorest who suffer the most.

Starve

Health workers who have protested for PPE can do the even more important job of defending the lockdowns. This has already begun to happen.

In several states across the US the Koch brothers and other corporate leaders have encouraged right-wing rallies on the steps of state capitols calling for the governors to lift the lockouts.

In response to this, wherever the union National Nurses United had enough members, they organised squads of nurses in scrubs to confront the demonstrators on the street. The photographs are magnificent.

In Britain, or any other country, health workers have been officially encouraged to send out group selfies and videos telling us all to stay at home. If they are confident, if they have already protested, they can send out more against lifting the lockdown.

Every campaign to get people to stay home, however, also has to be a campaign to make sure those people have an income. No lockdown will hold if people starve.

Love

But we will emerge from our homes into an economic crisis and mass unemployment. The suffering will be worse than in the pandemic.

What health workers do in that situation will be of great importance. Most politicians and business leaders will want to cut every public service, including health, to ‘save money’. And they will want to spend billions rescuing sick corporations.

But in every country, many people will be arguing for more services, better health care, and massive government spending to create jobs and get the economy moving again.

Tuesday can be a moment in the beginning of fighting for a new kind of economy.

What health and care workers do Tuesday, and in the weeks that follow, matters even more because climate change is coming.

We must rescue ourselves. That means, above all, green new deals, and climate jobs, building renewable energy, renewable transport, sustainable buildings, deep forests and all the rest. That would end mass unemployment.

Tuesday is about mourning the dead. It is about protecting the living. And it is a step towards a movement of love and courage that can change the world.

This Author

Jonathan Neale is a writer and climate jobs activist. He previously worked for the NHS. He tweets at @NealeSayles. 

Join an international Zoom call on Saturday about the day of protest. More information here.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Image: Health care workers stand in the street in counter-protest to hundreds of people who gathered at the State Capitol to demand the stay-at-home order be lifted in Denver, Colo., on Sunday, April 19, 2020. Photos by Alyson McClaran.

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