By Jamie Etheridge
Sometimes reality is so shocking, so impossibly unjust, that it’s hard to even believe. That is how I felt when I read the news this week that 10 nurses in Santa Monica, California had been suspended for refusing to work with COVID-19 patients without being provided N95 masks. The hospital claimed that the masks were in low supply, but CNN, which reported the story, confirmed that other medical staff including doctors, nurses and lab techs including ones in labor and delivery had access to the masks.
Like so much else, the pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the standard, normalized inequities and injustices that are embedded in our economies and societies. Nurses are among the hardest working, most essential personnel of any hospital or clinic. They may not study as many years as doctors do, but they still spend years in schooling and certainly contribute in real, important and fundamental ways to our healthcare systems.
Don’t misunderstand. I absolutely admire and respect doctors and the many years of study and hard work they endure to achieve their education and experience. They are heroes who risk their lives daily to treat patients suffering from this terrible virus. And the shortages of proper medical safety equipment in the United States have hit all medical staff, including doctors. But for hospitals to designate any available supplies for only one category of staff working with COVID-infected patients is grossly unfair.
At the heart of the disparity is also a historical inequity. Traditionally doctors were men and women were nurses. Doctors went to medical school and nurses to nursing colleges. In general, women earn less than men in the same fields even when they have the same or similar qualifications. Known as the gender pay gap, women earned 80 cents for every $1 earned by a man in the same job as of 2016. In industries where women dominate, salaries – and status – are even lower.
From a hierarchy or authority perspective, doctors take on the final responsibility for the patient’s health and welfare. They prescribe (though more nurses nowadays can also prescribe) medications and determine the treatment plan. They are also typically more vulnerable to malpractice lawsuits.
But when it comes to basic safety and exposure to a virus that we still know so little about, all medical staff should be treated equally. Nurses and doctors and lab techs and specialists and COVID-19 ward cleaning staff and anyone else who is putting their lives at risk to care for the sick. They are all heroes and deserve our respect and support equally.