What prompted me to write this essay is seeing a chest X-ray of a physician fighting the COVID-19 disease, and it did not look promising. I wish for the speedy recovery of this unknown physician. With the current state of affairs that our country and many others in the world are in, we need to take a pause and think about how we arrived at this place.
Every day the number of COVID-19 cases is exponentially increasing, of which many need hospitalization in ICU settings. At the time of my writing this piece, there are officially 24221 positive COVID-19 infection cases in the USA with 288 deaths so far, and for comparison a week ago, the number of positive cases was 1288 with 39 deaths. This should give everyone a pause as to how quickly this will metastasize if continued effective steps are not taken to control the spread. With a shortage of personal protective equipment, what has come to light through the first-hand experience of many on the frontlines is the extreme risk the health care workers are placing themselves in while treating this virulently contagious disease. It is akin to walking into a fire just like the brave firefighters, knowing very well that it could be the last fire they extinguish. The first-hand commentary by a number of health care workers, including physicians and nurses, has clearly shown the lack of preparedness. It feels almost as if we were just woken up from a deep slumber and thrown right in the midst of a tsunami.
The rationing of and refusal to provide adequate protective equipment to these workers goes to show the disregard for their well-being. These are critical value assets without which the entire system is going to collapse like a deck of cards. The dissolution of the pandemic council indicates how low the priority of health and well-being of citizens of this country has been, the disregard of timely warnings to prevent a major loss of life wasn’t either. Unfortunately, now many are paying the price for the lack of effective measures that could have been put in place well ahead of time. Despite best efforts, mortality is expected from any illness; however, if we had been better prepared, we could have avoided a lot of what we are currently facing. Not only is the health of the entire nation at stake, but the ripple effects due to an almost standstill economy except essential commodities will have deep-rooted repercussions in the foreseeable future. We were on the road of economic recovery, and this setback is going to cost millions their life savings, forcing them to make many hard decisions, including but not limited to health consequences.
We as a nation should be jolted into action. We have been conveniently oblivious to this potential risk. What we have not learned from natural/ manmade disasters is that there is never enough proactive preparedness. All the bureaucratic dog and pony show needs to end now and swift action taken to provide valuable support to the first responders of this calamitous event. Many health care workers are sick; some have perished. We don’t have the luxury of losing health care workers at this critical juncture. The normal timeline to add one new physician to the workforce is a minimum of 10 years, and 5 to 6 years for nursing. As we keep losing these valuable assets, we are in deep trouble with an already fragile health care system. There weren’t enough doctors in times of calm to provide adequate coverage for the aging population. How will the system function when more and more of us perish? Overworking the existing workforce increases their risk of physical and mental breakdown.
While I haven’t been on the frontline, hearing and watching what many in the medical fraternity both in the United States and all over the world are experiencing sends shivers down the spine. Are we so indispensable that bandanas are being recommended instead of proper masks, testing refusal of symptomatic health care personnel is happening in many places due to lack of testing kits that are being saved for the most critical. Not only are the health care workers treating the sick but are also becoming part-time engineers, mechanics, seamstresses to figure out how to use the limited resources to their fullest capacity. Desperate times have led to desperate measures. While it is a matter of pride that we see these daily he/sheroes still respond to the call of duty it is unnerving that instead of focusing on providing medical care which is what they signed up for this constant worry of how to provide that effectively is also looming large on their psyche.
Although actions are underway to provide more protective equipment, ventilators; they are not available right now. Fast-tracking tests and trying old and new medicines is happening rapidly now but may already be too late. Health care workers are pleading the general public for donations of this necessary equipment. Many in various communities have stepped up to help. Time is of the essence; one life lost is one too many.
Physicians took an oath when they entered medical school to treat the ill and knowingly will not back away from that sacred vow. As healers though, how do we make a call as to who lives and who dies?
Bhavika Bhan is an endocrinologist.
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