The current pandemic has thrown a long overdue spotlight on our health system, and how we care for people more generally. Physiotherapist Maeve O’Neill looks at the changes needed for a more healthy – and humane – society.
Only a few months ago in the North, healthcare unions were on industrial action demanding safe staffing levels and pay parity with NHS colleagues in England and Wales. Now frontline health workers are in the spotlight again, given that they are keeping people alive during this global pandemic.
Although the government is giving lip service to recognising their value, healthcare unions have had to mobilise to demand proper protection for workers during the COVID-19 crisis, calling for the appropriate levels of PPE, testing for workers, and childcare, among other things.
Health care unions must continue to work on the issues at hand, but we also need to look beyond this crisis and lockdown.
In the immediate term, we must keep up the call for public health measures to be put before profit. The North needs to continue to build on its public health capacities to identify, isolate, test, trace contacts and quarantine anyone with COVID-19.
Health care unions need to demand that outbreak risks are minimized in high-vulnerability settings – particularly in elderly homes, mental-health facilities and people residing in crowded places. Both care homes and domiciliary care need to be taken back into the NHS since the private system has shown to have completely failed during this pandemic.
We need to continue to demand that workplace preventative measures are established, which, at a bare minimum, includes physical distancing, handwashing facilities, and respiratory etiquette to be in place.
Not going back to ‘normal’
The corporate world has been working away to ensure that business as usual resumes so that we can go back to ‘normal’ after the lockdown is lifted. But the world we lived in pre-lockdown was not normal.
The economic system in which we live ensures rising inequality, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Before the current pandemic, we already had a health crisis, with massive neglect of the public sector as a whole, the disaster of universal credit, and we were in the midst of a climate crisis with impending climate catastrophe. All of these things could have warranted the type of emergency action that we have seen by governments over recent months.
In life beyond coronavirus we cannot return to business as usual. It was not healthy for the majority of people or the planet.
The work we do on the frontline in health and social care is founded on care. We need to re-imagine a world founded on that care and compassion. We have suffered great loss, in the patients we care for, but also among our colleagues, with over 200 health and social care staff dying due to COVID-19 throughout the NHS. With great loss, it allows us to focus on what is truly important, what sustains us, what are the bread and roses for which we must fight for.
A lot of the health and social care issues that we find most challenging to treat in the NHS and which take up so many of our resources are caused by social factors beyond our control. For so many people, to properly help improve their health and wellbeing, we need to change the world around them. Now is our chance. We must pursue the profound change that seemed impossible before this pandemic unfurled.
What type of world do we need that will significantly improve the health and wellbeing of the people we work with? We need to begin with ceasing the privatisation of our NHS. No one should be making a profit off our health service. We need a public takeover of the producers of the resources we need; PPE, ventilators, testing kits, and if a vaccine is developed. Unions must form a central part of all this, calling for the conditions that will not only continue to protect the rights of workers, but that also improve the health of the people we serve.
The care of our older community and most vulnerable is not a business. Again, these need to be brought under public ownership and properly funded, particularly after the scale of deaths in care homes from coronavirus. The privatisation of care homes was a scandal that should never have happened.
So many of our patients have been on waiting lists for years, doing their best to manage conditions that can be treated or need to be seen by a specialist. The purgatory of our waiting lists has had massive health impacts for people, to both their physical and mental health. We need proper investment in our health service to bring waiting lists to under 12 weeks.
All these measures, and more, will require a massive shift in how society’s resources are controlled and put to use.
A Wider Perspective
A healthy society is dependent upon much more than the health service itself.
We need to reduce economic inequality, one of the greatest determinants of poor health. Key to this is forcing the powers-that-be to fork out and provide people with the services and financial supports necessary, something that has taken on an added importance since the pandemic began.
Going further, another method is to implement a mass public jobs programme that creates meaningful jobs that have workers’ rights, and social good, at their core. And at the root of these measures: to massively tax the wealthy and redistribute wealth across society!
Air pollution levels have massively reduced with people staying at home and the grounding of planes. You can feel it in the air. We need proper action taken by government to invest in public transport infrastructure that is accessible for people with disabilities, in urban areas but also connecting to rural areas.
We need to move beyond a car-dependent society, supporting active but also accessible travel. Governments need to commit to further improving air quality by transitioning to green energy and retrofitting homes. This would have massive benefits to our respiratory health.
To borrow a phrase from George Monbiot, we should place a ‘Do not resuscitate’ on the institutions that are destroying our environment and that are harmful to our health, such as the oil, airline and car industries.
Governments should only keep alive the industries that will keep us alive and our planet healthy. But we must also ensure a just transition for the workers in those industries, to transition to jobs in green energy and infrastructure.
Another World is Possible
During the lockdown people have come off the hamster wheel and found themselves with time. The number of hours in the day have not changed but how we spend those hours have. Imagine a 4-day working week after this, where we have more time to spend with our families or do the things we love to do. Imagine a world where we have free childcare, where parents and carers could achieve a better work life balance.
Now that the pollution clouds have cleared it is a chance for us to see more clearly what is actually important to us. Instead of measuring our success as a country by GDP, can we instead measure happiness and health indicators.
Many households have been placing rainbows as signs of hope on our windows. What are our dreams on the other side of the rainbow, beyond this pandemic? The world will not look the same again but we need to reshape it in a way that it benefits the many and not the few. Our gold is our health and the health of our communities. People have shown the utmost care for the most vulnerable in our society through this crisis.
Is another world possible? Things that were supposedly impossible before this crisis have happened. Homeless people housed overnight, planes grounded, massive amount of resources poured into healthcare. Instead of simply imainging those changes above, in the words of Arundhati Roy, ‘Another world is not only possible, she’s on her way, and on a quiet day, if you listen very carefully, you can hear her breath.’