L.A. Times on covid-19’s terrible toll on Wuhan health workers
The Times report focuses on the desperate efforts to contain the coronavirus, which has killed many Chinese health workers; some have actually died of overwork. The piece also highlights the state media’s apparent use of a narrative of heroic sacrifice to mask failures to protect health workers. In a familiar image, one nurse was termed “an angel in a white gown.” But another front-line nurse published a poem bitterly rejecting the “praises” and the “so-called truth.” She wanted only to rest.
February 25, 2020 – Today the Los Angeles Times ran a powerful report by correspondent Alice Su about the deaths of nurses and physicians engaged in efforts to treat patients with the coronavirus. The report’s focus is not so much on what is being done to contain the virus, but on the toll taken on front-line health workers, as reflected in the headline: “Doctors and nurses fighting coronavirus in China die of both infection and fatigue.” Accordingly, there isn’t much about the specific clinical work of nurses, or even physicians, although the piece does focus somewhat more on them—indeed, every one of the four accompanying photos is of a physician. However, the report does show that nurses are deeply engaged and risking their lives in the effort. And it briefly addresses an issue that the media rarely does: whether extolling the “heroic sacrifice” of nurses and other health workers can actually mask or legitimize institutional disregard for the workers’ wellbeing. The piece does not specifically discuss the angel image of nursing. But it does mention a state media reference to one pregnant nurse still working only 20 days from her delivery date as a “great angel in a white gown.” In fact, nurses have long been praised for their devotion above all else, and socialized to accept levels of abuse that few other modern professions would accept, at least under normal conditions. Here, although there certainly is plenty of nursing sacrifice, there is also evidence of a willingness to push back. The article concludes by quoting a poem from an exhausted nurse who appears to have been working without sufficient protective gear. She bitterly rejects the “praises” and the “so-called truth” she has been hearing. Instead, she seeks only to rest. We thank those responsible for this piece.
Turning health workers into props
The L.A. Times piece includes basic information about the current scope of the outbreak, but its real subject is the experiences of health workers, as reflected in statistics, expert quotes, and some wrenching personal stories. The report makes a point of noting that as of the day before the article, 3,387 health workers in China had been infected with covid-19, according to health authorities. And the Times itself counted at least 18 reported deaths of health workers involved in the response to the virus. That includes “nurses and doctors who died not because of infection but because of cardiac arrest or other ailments due to overwork and fatigue. One victim was hit by a car while taking temperatures on a highway.” Pulling no punches, the piece explains that the “politically delayed response” has overwhelmed health systems and left health workers “underprotected, overworked and increasingly vulnerable, even as they became the nexus between a frightened public and a misdirected government.” It goes on to note that a major theme of “propaganda” from the state has been praising the workers. But a public backlash has blamed the Communist Party for failing to take responsibility for failures that put the workers in peril, including “shortages of protective gear, understaffed hospitals and transportation shutdowns [that] collided with an overwhelming number of patients.”
The piece consults John Nicholls, a Hong Kong pathologist who worked on the 2003 SARS outbreak. Nicholls explains that exhaustion makes health workers more vulnerable to infection, as does a lack of relevant training and close contact with infected patients. In particular, enlisting workers with other specialties who are not trained in the required infection control practices can lead to them becoming infected, spreading the infection, and then becoming patients themselves, further burdening the system. Nicholls sees that pattern with covid-19, where tens of thousands of health workers were sent to Wuhan to help with the response, with a good deal of patriotic fanfare but little indication of whether they were getting the proper training.
Themes of sacrifice for the nation have been major ones in the state media in the wake of the death of the whistleblower physician Li Wenliang, the report says. But some have reportedly faulted the media for “turn[ing] medical workers into props.” After the Wuhan Evening News praised a nurse who returned to front-line work 10 days after a miscarriage, there were online objections about such “propaganda” and about placing vulnerable health workers at risk. And when a state TV channel referred to a pregnant nurse still working in an emergency department 20 days from her delivery date as a “great mother and angel in a white gown,” some were “furious.” Feminist writer Hou Hongbin apparently told the South China Morning Post that allowing such women to work puts them at great risk because of their weakened immune systems, and the reports are “humiliating these nurses, but they present it as if they are making a sacrifice.” We wish more feminists would object to the abuse of nurses, which remains sadly common worldwide. Meanwhile, Peking University academic Luo Xin reportedly noted, in a podcast, that the emphasis on militaristic sacrifice legitimizes abuses of basic human rights.
A faceless howl
The piece includes harrowing stories about the fates of some health workers. It explains that nurse Cai Liping had worked on the front lines with her husband Liu Zhiming, a neurosurgeon who had led a local hospital’s response to the outbreak. After Liu became infected with the virus, Cai begged to take care of him. But Liu refused, and refused even to see Cai as his health declined, for fear that she too would become infected. After he died, a video of her reaction went viral. The Times describes it:
Sudden pain pierced through the anonymity of hazmat suits and protective masks as a woman in full medical gear chased a black funeral van, letting out a faceless howl…as she stagger[ed] forward, arms outstretched, watching as his corpse was driven away to be cremated.
The piece also describes the deaths of several young physicians, while other infected physicians “continued to treat patients while wearing insufficient protective gear.” One middle-aged nurse died along with her brother and both parents “after being quarantined at home in close quarters.” The hospitals were full. And a young pharmacist died from exhaustion-driven cardiac arrest after “single-handedly managing his hospital’s medicine prescriptions, then checking temperatures at a highway stop at night” for 10 days straight.
Poem from a nurse
The piece closes by contrasting the “state propaganda [that] continues to praise heroic sacrifice” with a poem published by Long Qiaoling, a front-line nurse in Wuhan:
Please allow me to remove my protective gear and mask
To separate my flesh from the armor
Let me lean my body down
Let me breathe quietly
The slogans are yours
The praise is yours
The propaganda, the model workers, all are yours
I am just fulfilling my duties
Acting on a healer’s conscience
Often, we go bare-skinned into battle
No time to choose between life and death
Truly no high and mighty thoughts
Please don’t give me a wreath
Don’t give me applause….
Please don’t bother me
The so-called truth, the numbers
I don’t have time or heart to follow
I’m exhausted day and night
To rest, to sleep
Is more important than your praises
If you can, please go and see
Those ruined homes
Is smoke rising from their hearths?
Those scattered phones in the crematorium
Have they found their owners?
See the article Doctors and nurses fighting coronavirus in China die of both infection and fatigue” by Alice Su, published in the Los Angeles Times on February 25, 2020.