. Slogans are not enough, our NHS workers need to be protected | Ceasefire Magazine

Slogans are not enough, our NHS workers need to be protected Comment

If we really care about our healthcare workers we should move beyond 'angels and heroes' sloganeering, and help them resist their exploitation, writes D. Hunter.

New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Saturday, April 11, 2020 10:29 - 0 Comments


Both my partner and one of my housemates are midwives working for the NHS and it’s important to acknowledge that they are neither heroes nor angels. They are workers, and like the rest of their colleagues in the NHS right now the levels of their exploitation has been increased. Not only are they working in an employment sector which has been gutted over the past decade, they are also being pressured into putting their lives at risk.

Due to either the greed or incompetence (probably both) of their employers, NHS workers up and down the country, for any number of different health trusts, are not being supplied with consistent and satisfactory Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Since the beginning of the outbreak, NHS workers have reported on having to use bin bags as PPE, being asked to hold their breath whilst dealing with patients, and being threatened to keep quiet about the lack of PPE.

Whilst Matt Hancock isn’t bothering to count the number of nurses who are dying of the virus and is too busy blaming the public for going to the park, each day passes with news of more NHS workers dying due to infection on the job. Nurses, Midwives, Healthcare Assistants, Doctors, Porters and Cleaners are all NHS workers, and it’s their employer’s responsibility to provide them with the equipment which will keep them alive, a responsibility which Hancock, the Health Department and the Health Trust are all failing to honour.

On top of this, due to the possible infections of their colleagues and the long term under-staffing, healthcare professionals are expecting to see an increase in the numbers of work hours they are being requested to carry out each week. Overworked, understaffed and barely protected, but it’s okay because the country is clapping. It is not just NHS staff which is being stretched, my old colleagues in Health and Social Care in the community and in residential homes up and down the country are being just as exploited, but they’re not getting any claps.

When I was working in Health and Social Care, one of the most common management strategies was to maintain the narrative that we, as people who care and support vulnerable people, are a special breed of people: kinder, gentler, more empathetic, than your average workforce. We were Angels, just like the NHS staff are Heroes. When your safety is disregarded, when you are paid barely enough to live off, when you are tired and over worked, having a narrative that tells you are an Angel or a Hero, might well help you get through your fifth 12 hour shift of the week.

What it is for sure going to do is make it more difficult for you to say “No” to the 6th 12hour shift, or to say “No” I won’t take care of that sick or vulnerable individual, because I’m not being provided with the equipment that protects me from a deadly virus. Because to say “no”, that’s unacceptable, it has been framed by the ‘Angel and Hero’ narrative to make it look like you are saying is “actually I’m not that caring, I’m not that special kind of person who wants to look after people”.

Ideas around care giving being the natural role of women, and the fact that globally the healthcare workforce is predominately female, exacerbates the pressures placed on this workforce. As others have already argued, covid-19 is not gender neutral and the consequences for women in all forms of work are ones society must engage with.

The bosses who run the health trusts, the care homes, the fuckers in the government, they all know this shit. They know that if they create the mythology that nurses, midwives, healthcare workers are heroes and angels of the NHS, then it’s going to get harder and harder for those workers to say…”no, fuck off. these working conditions are exploitative”.

If we actually give a shit about what all healthcare workers are going through at the moment, we won’t help create a culture where they cannot say no, we’ll help create a culture where they can defend themselves from the exploitative practices of their employers. These workers are not only facing the usual pressures of needing to sell their labour in order to survive, they are now more than ever facing a moralistic pressure to keep working.

The current crisis is being framed as a War. The healthcare workers aren’t just Heroes and Angels, they are also apparently soldiers, and their deaths are to be expected and accepted as casualties of such a war. This framing needs to be challenged every time it is used. Healthcare workers have not signed up to risk their lives, and should not be expected to; they have signed up to carry out very specific roles under specific conditions.

I don’t know whether many healthcare workers want to strike due to the drastic changes in the conditions of their work, but I know that the maintenance of Wartime framing, and narratives of Heroes and Angels are very much part of undercutting any external support industrial action might receive. It’s likely that many NHS workers appreciated the Thursday night clapping session — when your material needs are being totally disregarded some symbolic support might feel lovely. Although I would argue that this clapping is a fundamentally derisory and hollow gesture, one that is more about those clapping than anyone, or anything, else. As is making memes about how those who are clapping should have voted Labour, which is also fucking weak and self-serving.

Instead, we could be finding ways to push for the material needs of NHS and other Health and Care workers. Everyone should get directly in touch with the nurses, midwives and healthcare workers they know and find out whether they’re being given the right PPE and if they’re being pressurised into working extra shifts. Follow that through by getting in touch with your local branches of these workers unions, Royal College of Nurses, Unison and Royal College of Midwives and ask them whether they need any support in protecting their members.

Or you could put pressure on your local MPs and Health Trusts — make sure they know their actions are being watched. At the very least, next time you step outside your house to clap NHS workers, or do a little street dance, perhaps start a chant demanding the best possible PPE for all NHS workers: “Test, Test, Test! PPE! Keep Key Workers Virus Free!”.

If nothing else it might begin to shift the Heroes and Angels rhetoric, and remind any healthcare workers on your street that you support their struggle to have their material needs met.

D. Hunter is the author of “Chav Solidarity” and co-editor of "Lumpen: A Journal of Poor and Working Class Writing". His next book “Trauma, Tracksuits and Class Traitors” is out in the Autumn.

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