Interview: US health workers fight back

Interview with Eljeer Hawkins, New York City surgical technician & socialist activist

NYC is at the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic. What are conditions like for health workers there?

EH: The conditions throughout our for-profit healthcare system and for the workers has been an utter disaster with unconscionable consequences as we try to take care of our patients and the broader working class with a lack of critical resources like PPE, ventilators, and staff to combat this pandemic. The lack of resources has led to nurses contracting the virus, dying, extreme levels of PTSD, and profound anxiety. Healthcare works are requested to do so much with so little for decades. And now, this moment demands of us to do more, needing more resources, and this moment highlights the virus of capitalist logic and values.

How has the for-profit health system in the US impacted this crisis?

EH: The capitalist system puts profits first before the wellbeing and health of the majority of the working class, poor and most oppressed. In New York State and City, we have lost 21 hospitals since 2000. We had 73,931 beds in 2000, and now we have 53,000 in 2020, a net loss of 20,000 beds with staffing, equipment, and supplies gone. It’s estimated that we need 55,000 to 110,000 hospital beds to confront the positive cases of COVID-19.

In our rural areas of the country, we have lost 160 hospitals. The most high-profile of the hospital closures were no doubt St. Vincent’s Catholic Medical Center, which was demolished in 2012 at the end of the Bloomberg era. “St. Vinny’s,” which nobly served droves of gay men and poor people during the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, was razed for a glittering new condo development with private gardens, underground parking, a 25-meter-long swimming pool, and a golf simulator. Today, the frantic construction of make-shift hospitals is happening because New York’s elite has valued profits over people and hollowed out our healthcare system.

Some of those same elites have fled the city to their homes in the Hamptons, on Long Island’s eastern shores, despicably spreading the virus and hoarding fresh food from local supermarkets. It is a raw reminder that billionaires are the real hoarders in society. What a contrast with working people like nurses and grocery store workers who’ve banded together to get through this pandemic.

What kinds of actions have healthcare workers in New York and elsewhere in the US taken to demand their right to safety in the workplace?

EH: We have seen nurses and their union’s stage walkouts, social distancing rallies, press conferences that highlight the actual conditions on the frontlines counteracting the corporate media and politicians spin around this pandemic. It has led to Amazon and Instacart workers to demand PPE equipment with their rallies and strikes. The most undemocratic and unsafe place on the planet is the workplace, and COVID-19 has unleashed the potential power of the working class to demand what we need and want to through social struggle, solidarity, and working-class unity.