Cornell University Press Authors' blogs

Nurses in the Coronavirus Pandemic

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Over the past few weeks, as the coronavirus has whipped through the country, the press, policymakers and the public have finally recognized the value of the largest profession in healthcare. Every media outlet reporting on the crisis now includes comments from nurses as well as reports on the risks nurses face as they care for patients.

My questions are: One, why has it taken this long. And two, why aren’t policymakers and hospital administrators giving nurses what they need, now?

For years, nurses have tried to explain their work to the public. I have been honored to help with this work. In several of my books, Nursing Against the Odds, and Life Support: Three Nurses on the Frontlines, I’ve tried to describe in detail the work of nurses to a broad public. In the Complexities of Care, edited with The Culture and Politics of Healthcare Work co-editor Sioban Nelson, we described the various ways in which the typical stereotype of nurses as angels of mercy does a disservice to the profession.

In From Silence to Voice: What Nurses Know and Must Communicate to the Public, Bernice Buresh and I provide a roadmap to help nurses explain their critical work to the public. Scores of nurses did just that in the edited collection When Chicken Soup Isn’t Enough. In this short volume, nurses from all over the world, working in very different healthcare settings, describe their critical work and argue that they must act assertively to protect themselves and their patients.

Today more than ever before, more and more nurses must continue to speak up to protest the unacceptable conditions under which they are asked to work. Sadly, the fact that nurses are being asked to work without proper protective equipment is hardly surprising.

Today more than ever before, more and more nurses must continue to speak up to protest the unacceptable conditions under which they are asked to work.

For years, nurses and their unions have fought for the kind of safe staffing legislation that nurses have won in California, thanks to the leadership of The California Nurses Association/National Nurses United.  Other unions, like the Massachusetts Nurses Association, have also fought for the kind of safe staffing legislation, that would have ensured that there would be enough nurses to take care of patients in hospitals all over the country in a time of national emergency. Hospital associations have derailed this kind of legislation whenever and wherever it has been proposed.

Nurses have asked for the lift equipment that would pay for itself and make their work safer. Hospital associations have fought this wherever and whenever it has been proposed.

Now, in this national emergency, nurses along with physicians and other healthcare workers, have been forced to go the media to make their concerns public because their employers are not taking action to make them safe. Instead, employers have issued disciplinary warnings, threatened staff, and done everything to silence them.

Thankfully nurses are rejecting this and must continue to do so. And we the public must add our voices to support them.

Nurses aren’t the only ones whose insights should be solicited and needs effectively addressed. Administrators and legislators must respond to the needs of all other healthcare workers. Nurses know that healthcare is delivered by a team because it takes a literal village to care for a patient.  That’s why we also need to value and protect nursing assistants, housekeepers, dietary and transport workers, respiratory therapists, and many others who need our help, support and action now!

Nurses aren’t the only ones whose insights should be solicited and needs effectively addressed. Administrators and legislators must respond to the needs of all other healthcare workers.

We need to ask our legislators and our President why individuals are sitting at home sewing masks for wealthy healthcare systems like Kaiser when no one is forcing manufacturers to produce masks en masse. We need to demand that it be illegal to silence healthcare workers who are protesting dangerous working conditions. And, most importantly, when this crisis is over, we need to reconsider the popular view of healthcare that makes non-physician providers invisible and finally promote the idea of teamwork and safety throughout the healthcare industry.


Suzanne Gordon has written, edited, or co-authored twenty books. Gordon has been published in the New York TimesLos Angeles TimesBoston GlobeAmerican ProspectAtlantic Monthly, and Harper’s Magazine.


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