COVID-19 unmasks a broken system

2020 has presented us with unprecedented challenges. We’re six months into a pandemic that was only officially recognized half as long ago. This crisis was ignored, discredited, and camouflaged, unnecessarily worsening today’s chaos. It’s baffling that the “strongest” leader of the free world was presented with such a predictable series of events already occurring in other nations, yet we were dumbfounded. We should have had a head start! Regardless, our administration has left its mess, leaving the health care community and other frontline workers to clean it up.

We all know that we went into medicine for a higher calling. Understandably, we’re expected to rise to any occasion and sacrifice our own wellbeing for the health of others, but at what point did society forget about its end of the bargain? Physicians have long accepted and continue to endure constant scrutiny from the public eye. In exchange, doctors simply ask for a reasonable degree of support. So far, we’ve received just the opposite. The government rationalizes shipping Personal Protective Equipment overseas to feign strength and stability but allows its physicians to work unprotected. We’ve been gaslighted to the point where we must bargain for our own lives! Yet, society’s sympathy runs shallow. The average American has shown a complete disregard for science and expertise as health care workers continue to put their lives on the line.

Approximately 78,000 health care workers have tested positive for COVID-19. The CDC says that more than 400, a severely conservative estimate. The National Nurses United alone has tallied about 940 fatalities. If you follow the count of physicians on the National Physicians United-COVID 19 subgroup on social media, you can’t help but hurt when you realize over 200 physicians have died, each with their own story. Every day, the list grows. We must ensure that these heroes are not forgotten, that their lives and work are celebrated, and that they’re not discredited as “sacrifices.” These deaths were avoidable.

This response is supposed to be everyone against the virus. Most days, though, it does feel like us against them. While we sacrifice our lives, family, sanity, we expect little in return. We only ask that America buys into a few simple requests. Yet when Americans are required to simply wear a mask, socially distance, not go out to eat, or, heaven forbid, not have a football season,  society finds grounds for revolt. Why should we care about a disease where the mortality is 1 to 3 percent? If you’ve asked this question, you haven’t prematurely buried a loved one, said a final goodbye on an iPad, or struggled climbing a flight of stairs after running marathons. You haven’t had to repeatedly break bad news and deal with such a burden of helplessness … yet. The only thing I can rely on is comments on social media about this “farce,” how “we need haircuts,” or how “we must have a football season.”

This cognitive dissonance is shining a light on our society’s utter lack of collective conscience. Basic human decency is confused with socialism. Empathy and morality are mistaken as handouts. You shout about missing your favorite restaurant, while thousands of kids starve without their school’s lunches. Racially motivated social determinants are exposing themselves as minorities are disproportionately affected, yet the victims are blamed for poorer outcomes. America refuses to think about how we got to this point. Justifying these disparities with arguments like “Maybe it’s because this group doesn’t wash their hands enough,” is only enforcing America’s preferred stance: ignorance and blame.

As a physician monitoring the response of major health care organizations and medical societies, I’m astounded. We ask residents and even students to volunteer. These children have very little offered to them in the face of hazard insurance, life insurance, or loan repayment. They are human and have families and are fulfilling their obligation to society under such inhumane conditions. We can arm law enforcement with thousands of military-grade weapons and protective garb within hours, but we simply don’t have the resources for health care workers. “They signed up for it.”

It’s easy to be a “wartime leader” when it fits a narrative for an election, but when it comes to protecting the soldiers actually saving lives, we’re suddenly “stretched too thin.” This double standard is a microcosm of what health care workers have dealt with for years.

Sometimes it seems like our own leaders have left us out to dry! While ACP, ACEP, AAFP, to name a few,  have come out with very strong statements condemning our current state, the other bigwigs remain silent. I hope they’re able to at least figure out why they are struggling with their membership. Our priorities should not be focused on MOCs and other hurdles created to fill coffers; rather, we should be helping doctors do what they do best, practice medicine!

The mental toll COVID-19 has taken on us will stick around for a while. Psychiatrists are busier than ever, our at-risk population is at heightened risk of violent action, and our colleagues are struggling. I even convince myself that we’ll eventually desensitize to the staggering death tolls. But when I read about another fellow physician’s suicide, I die a little more.

So, the next time you give me a look for wearing a mask or trying to create a space between us, please try to at least empathize. Behind that mask is a mother who dies a little every time their child has a scratchy throat or their tummy hurts because they fear the worst. Behind that mask is a doctor who is exhausted from working and homeschooling. Behind that mask is a father who has been camping out in a garage for months to avoid spreading. Behind that mask is an immunocompromised person who will die within days of catching this disease. Behind that mask is an infant who deserves to live past three.

Indeed, while we are still waiting for masks, COVID-19 has unmasked who we truly are! I pray that the coming consequences will change us a little, so the next time you ask me how I am doing, I might just say, “I think I am finally doing well!”

Rayyan Abid is an aspiring medical student. Fariha Shafi is an internal medicine physician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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