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Hospital Workers Are Producing Their Own Masks: Yet Another Reason Why the Working Class Should Control All Production

As vital medical supplies run low, health care workers have been forced to re-use, and in some cases make their own protective gear. This demonstrates capitalism’s failure to provide for even the most basic needs of humanity, and shows why we must put production directly in the hands of the working class.

Tatiana Cozzarelli

March 20, 2020
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We have no idea how many people in the U.S. have the coronavirus thanks to a severe shortage of tests.  And we have no idea how many people will get it.

What we do know is that hospitals are not prepared for the massive influx of patients on the horizon. They don’t have enough beds, they don’t have enough personnel, and there isn’t enough protective gear.

Doctors and nurses have taken to social media with the hashtag #GetMePPE (PPE stands for personal protective equipment) to advertise their plight. As Mike Pappas explains in his article On the Front Lines of the Coronavirus Pandemic: A Doctor’s View

In one New York hospital, management advised staff to “reuse” N95 masks with a distributed document saying “N95 masks will be reused by staff until they are soiled, moist, or compromised,” and to obtain a new mask an associate must “request a mask from their supervisor.

Policies such as this one pose great risk of infection for healthcare workers, who could then potentially spread the infection to patients. It doesn’t stop at the special N95 masks, however. Nurses in Chicago are now reporting they are even running out of regular surgical masks, which is unconscionable in a healthcare setting. As one nurse who recently contacted us, put it: “Ok, so now we get two masks each and that’s it!!! WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON????” That is a great question.

In some places, hospital workers are taking action for their own safety and the safety of their patients. In Italy, doctors are actually 3D printing, for a few dollars each, unavailable life-saving breathing apparatuses that would otherwise cost thousands of dollars. Meanwhile, in the United States, healthcare workers at Providence St. Joseph Health in Washington are purchasing vinyl sheets, foam, and industrial tape from Home Depot and craft stores in order to make their own face shields and masks. This is because the government has been moving at a snail’s pace to provide necessary medical equipment to hospitals. The Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services did not issue a request for contracts for 500 million face masks until early this month, despite the fact that the coronavirus has been getting people sick Since January. 

As of Thursday, Washington had at least 1,012 cases and 52 deaths. 27 of Washington’s deaths have been tied to a single nursing home, the Life Care Center in Kirkland, demonstrating how much protective equipment (or the lack of it) means life of death when it comes to spreading the virus. The U.S. has at least 6,496 cases of covid-19 and 114 deaths so far, according to the Johns Hopkins coronavirus tracker. Healthcare workers are particularly at risk. In China, more than 3,300 health care workers have contracted the virus.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump is worried about bailing out the airline industry and has already pumped 1.5 billion into the markets as a stimulus. Wealthy people, including some who are asymptomatic, often have access to coronavirus testing while working class people still don’t. 

Workers’ Control 

The complete and utter failure by the federal government to address the pandemic has led the Wall Street Journal to suggest the need for “public-private partnerships.” But private corporations function for profit, not need. Their main function is to ensure massive profits for their CEO’s. 

Additionally, this entirely decentralized process is slowing down the urgent response necessary to control the virus. The federal government actually has no idea how many masks there are. A request for information from the Domestic Strategic National Stockpile’s Office of Resource Management asks vendors of medical supplies how much protective gear they have in stock. It went out on February 24 and responses are due on March 24. But as any healthcare worker will tell you: there isn’t enough of anything. 

In order to quickly begin producing the necessary healthcare equipment, all necessary industry should be re-purposed toward this end. In order to do this, production should be nationalized. 

Hospitals must also be urgently nationalized as well. As Left Voice argues,

Today, hospitals are privatized and disconnected from each other. In this moment, we need a nationalized network of hospitals to organize care for all of the people who need it. Furthermore, wealthy corporations should not be allowed to profit at the expense of the sick and the needy.  The production of vaccines, surgical masks, ventilators, and disinfectants — as well as all the products, infrastructure, and services necessary to treat the ill — which are currently manufactured for profit rather than use, must be immediately nationalized to ensure that these much needed supplies are produced in adequate numbers and at the cost of production.

But it is not enough to nationalize. Industry and healthcare should also be under workers’ control. Nurses and doctors on the front line are showing that they react quickly and fight for their patients in the most heroic ways. Already, nurses and doctors are showing the way forward by actually producing makeshift equipment to keep each other and their patients safe. But they shouldn’t have to work with craft store materials; they should be running the entire hospitals and the entire system of production. 

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Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

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