Nurses on Strike

November 14, 2014

By Theo Schall


An American nurses’ union went on strike this week to demand better training and equipment to guard against the spread of the Ebola virus. At least, that’s what they said they were striking for. The nurses’ union, known for a theatrical executive director and aggressive tactics, is currently in the midst of contract negotiations. Despite widespread fear, the risk of catching Ebola in America remains very, very small. Even if agree with the need for reform of the American medical system, we ought to look critically at the timing of this protest and carefully consider its impact on nurses working on the frontlines of the Ebola crisis.


Disease outbreaks hold a mirror up to overlooked problems. Mistakes that would otherwise be routine become emergencies. In this case, the National Nurses United union, which has about 180,000 members, is concerned about staffing issues – whether there will be enough nurses assigned to patients. Understaffed hospitals are dangerous, particularly when there’s an outbreak of infectious disease. Public health officials’ early blunders in managing the country’s first Ebola case fueled nurses’ frustration that their complaints weren’t being heard. Yet the underlying issue isn’t Ebola – it’s mismanaged, understaffed medical facilities.


The National Nurses Union’s rhetoric is stronger than is justifiable given the current risk of contracting Ebola in this country. The union’s executive director, Rose Ann DeMoro, compared her constituents’ work with that of ACT UP, the grassroots AIDS advocacy group that brought national attention to the plight of gay men at the height of the epidemic. On Wednesday, nurses lay down in front of the White House in a staged die-in, a common tactic even today for ACT UP. But American nurses aren’t dying of AIDS. Fearing a disease isn’t the same as dying of it. ACT UP took to the streets because the government refused to react to the AIDS epidemic; in contrast, President Obama has asked for billions to fight Ebola.


Let’s not forget: while Ebola is a useful rhetorical device for American nurses, it’s not so abstract in West Africa. Healthcare workers in Sierra Leone were also on strike this week, protesting the government’s failure to provide the $100 hazard payments they’d been promised. As in other Ebola outbreaks, nurses have been disproportionately affected, contracting the infection and dying at a much higher rate than everyone else. Hundreds of healthcare workers have already died. There have been many reports of healthcare workers and their families losing their homes and social supports as a result of their connection with the disease.


To suggest that the difference between American nurses and their African counterparts is merely one of degree diminishes the bravery of West African healthcare workers who have been willing to die for their work. The difference is this: the American Nurses United union wants to use Ebola to point to structural problems, whereas West African nurses have done their duty even as the structure collapsed around them. Nurses on both sides of the Atlantic are owed respect and support, but those with the greatest need deserve priority. Reforming the American healthcare system will take time. Despite all inflammatory rhetoric to the contrary, we are not faced with a crisis on par with the one unfolding in West Africa.

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Theo Schall

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