COVID-19: An ongoing threat to health care workers

Health care workers around the world continue to fight for basic health protections amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Last week, the Scottish Healthcare Workers Coalition (SHWC) urged the government of Scotland to restore face mask mandates in health care settings. In May, following the lead of other bourgeois states like the Biden administration in the U.S., the Scottish government — under British authority — lifted these restrictions. This has endangered the lives of both health care workers and patients. 

NHS doctors picketing for higher pay, London, July 20 (Photo: Vuk Valcic)

Despite the Scottish government’s claim that COVID-19 has entered “a calmer phase,” many medical groups, including the British Medical Association (BMA), denounced its decision as having no basis in science. Data show that COVID-19 continues to infect hundreds of people every week in Scotland as well as England, Wales and the north of Ireland. Medical workers, including all the members of the SHWC, remain at disproportionate risk of infection, with tens of thousands continuing to suffer from often disabling long COVID symptoms. (BBC July 17)

“With at least 4% of [National Health Service (NHS)] staff now living with chronic post-COVID complications, the Scottish government must follow the evidence and improve protections from the airborne spread [of the virus] in health care settings, not reduce them,” said Dr. Shaun Peter Qureshi, a member of the SHWC. 

The plight of health care workers reveals broader trends. An Office of National Statistics (ONS) survey found that around two million people in England, Scotland, and Wales have or are experiencing long COVID symptoms. According to a June 2022 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study, almost one in five of the 40% of U.S. adults who reported having COVID-19 also have suffered from long COVID symptoms. (cdc.com)

Workers sacrificed for profit

As Scotland’s disregard for workers’ health demonstrates, capitalist governments are intent on sacrificing workers, seniors, disabled people and other at-risk communities for the sake of ruling-class profits. But their attempts to “normalize” the pandemic cannot hide the fact that COVID-19 and the disabling conditions it is causing remain a global emergency. 

Research presented in a recent Pfizer article shows that over 65 million people worldwide — 10% of those infected with COVID-19 — have reported long COVID symptoms. Astronomical as this number is, it is likely an underestimate, given the flaws in pandemic tracking, testing, and diagnostics. (pfizer.com)

Many of those who have long COVID are unable to work and lack access to adequate health care resources. According to another ONS study, those experiencing long COVID are 40% more likely to be unemployed than those who reported no long COVID symptoms. (The Conversation, May 22)

This ongoing crisis, highlighted by the SHWC, demands an effective state response. Instead, Britain’s Conservative government continues to subject the single-payer NHS to devastating austerity measures. 

For over a decade, the NHS has suffered from chronic underfunding and budget cuts that have resulted in long wait times and endemic delays for patients. This crisis has created a vicious cycle in which right-wing politicians use breakdowns in NHS care — caused by underfunding — as justification for further budget cuts to the NHS. By doing so, they hope ultimately to privatize health care in Britain altogether, providing a new source of extorted value for their bourgeois masters. 

Medical workers’ strikes hit low pay

This past week, NHS consultants and junior doctors have gone on strike to protest their low pay, which, according to the BMA, has gone down by 35% in real wages since the 2008 recession. Starting July 13, junior doctors went on a five-day strike, with NHS consultants following them on July 20 and 21. 

These strikes are the latest in a series of workers’ actions to resist the neoliberal assault on the NHS. In June, NHS nurses went on strike, demanding higher wages and improved working conditions. 

Despite these actions, Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, a former Goldman Sachs analyst and hedge-fund boss, has offered only a meager pay raise of 6% for consultants and 5% for nurses, medics and other medical workers. These proposed raises would come from the NHS’s already overstrained budget, and Sunak has refused to provide the Service with additional funding. To pressure Sunak’s government, the BMA has called for further walkouts in August. 

That the government which presides over Wales, Scotland, England and the north of Ireland is attacking the NHS and doing away with basic medical safeguards during the ongoing pandemic reflects the priorities of the capitalist medical system, which turns disease and suffering into sources of profit. 

As the dire situation NHS workers are fighting against illustrates, even the most sweeping social-democratic health care programs remain at constant risk of enclosure and privatization by the bourgeois state. Truly safe and effective medical care requires an entirely socialist health care system based on human need, not profit. 

As a vital first step towards making such a future a reality, workers worldwide must act in solidarity with NHS employees in their struggle for higher pay and basic workplace protections, which would guarantee the health and well-being of both patients and health care workers.

Will Hodgkinson

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Will Hodgkinson

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