Conscience, COVID and contemporary choices

Many of us are beginning to see a light at the end of the pandemic, more than a year into the worst public-health crisis in a century.

We've gotten our vaccines, and as springtime emerges after months of isolation, masking and feeling we've sacrificed family and social connections, we're clinging to the hope for real life to resume

But the global horrors of COVID-19 are far from over. Not only in India, in Brazil, in Africa, in Central America, but here in "the land of the free, the home of the brave."

Health-care professionals have been struggling psychologically, with hospitals in many parts of the country overflowing with severe COVID cases and in some cases backed up in providing medical attention to other patients. Many nurses and other health-care workers are suffering from moral distress and 'burnover' as they face impossible constraints in doing their jobs. Many, left reeling by the constant, heart-wrenching pressures of inadequate staffing, protective equipment and having to ration care in some cases, isolated from grieving families, have left their jobs and their professions.

Worse still is knowing, in some cases, that large segments of the public -- misled by political hacks -- are in denial about basic safeguarding measures, the wisdom of being vaccinated and even the reality of the pandemic, which has caused 3 million deaths globally at this point.

One El Paso nurse who resigned posted last November that the last of about 25 ICU patients she was tending to on her shift, "basically wrapped in a tarp" making small talk about "fake news," adding, "I don’t think COVID is really more than a flu. ... I should just take vitamins for my immune system. They (news) are making it a big deal.” The TV news was on, with her city in need of need of more freezer truck morgues, and she broke with protocol to reveal to this patient -- the only patient able to speak to her or even be aware that she's present -- that she'd done more CPR and seen more people die in the past two weeks than in her entire 10-year career combined.

One of the Twitter responses is from another nurse: "It’s been a hard struggle to stay positive and continue to nurse right now. Every person I see that isn’t wearing a mask in public might as well tell me to go fuck myself, because that’s what it is. I work 13 hours a day chasing complications from COVID. Seems like no one cares."

In Michigan, where the governor has been under political pressure not to continue mandatory COVID closures, Alexandra Budnik, an intensive care nurse who works in a unit with lifesaving machines, or circuits, that are in short supply, told The New York Times, “We’re getting to the point where we’re just so beat down. Every time we get a call or every time we hear that there’s another 40-year-old that we don’t have a circuit for — it’s just like, you know, we can’t save them all.”

An article, "Beyond Burnout," co-authored by a psychiatrist and a surgeon, says, "The crises of ICU beds at capacity, shortages of personal protective equipment, emergency rooms turning away ambulances, and staff shortages are happening this time not in isolated hot spots but in almost every state. Clinicians again face work that is risky, heart-rending, physically exhausting, and demoralizing, all the elements of burnout. They have seen this before and are intensely frustrated it is happening again.

"Too many of them are leaving health care long before retirement. The disconnect between what health care workers know and how the public is behaving, driven by relentless disinformation, is unbearable. Paraphrasing a colleague, “How can they call us essential and then treat us like we are disposable?”

The article continues: "We are now facing a convergence of two cataclysms: the abject failure of preparedness driven by the dogma that market forces can best shape health care, and the catastrophic failure at the highest levels of leadership in the U.S. to adequately address and control the pandemic. Health care workers are left to manage in the ensuring chaos feeling disposable, devalued, and demoralized."

Even though the Biden administration has changed the tone of the federal response and marshaled resources to ramp up vaccinations to bring the pandemic under control, new COVID variants, there remains a stubborn resistance by some states to mandate restrictions and a "personal freedom" stance by those who defiantly ignore their social responsibility even as the virus kills and ruins lives. And despite clear evidence of deliberate attempts by the previous administration to acknowledge, much less respond to, the pandemic as a dire public-health emergency, those same political forces are planning a return to power nationally, in part by parroting their disinformation about the health risks.

Let me be clear: there are plenty of people whose concerns, based on misinformation or their own health histories, about being vaccinated are valid, though there are more truly dire health risks from contracting COVID -- especially if they don't follow safety guidelines. But there are also politically motivated campaigns against the vaccines, against pandemic safety restrictions, from libertarians and Republicans who claim they curtail our freedoms.

We saw one example of these wrongheaded efforts during a visit to Florida, when I dound cards dropped in every driveway in our area. "Neighborhood alert" read the red-text warnings warnings accompanied by a "No Face Mask" meme. The cards, marked with the website for the far-right Epoch Times listed "symptoms of blocked air flow" from mask wearing, including "depression, suicidal thoughts, loss of self-worth, irritation..."

It's clear that COVID -- with cases surging in parts of this country and around the world, has ravaged the economy and also led to distress severe among those who have lost their jobs, lost their homes and lost family members -- has also led to burnout in other sectors, including teachers and local officials. But front-line health workers, who must directly confront the direct responsibility of caring for lives, are especially in the line of fire as the virus and irresponsible blind defiance rage on.