COVID-19 and heroism
I am a physician who fell ill and has recovered from COVID-19. My symptoms were mild. The most bothersome aspect of the ordeal was the interminable isolation, feeling well but remaining quarantined.
I recognize that I am incredibly fortunate to make such a statement. In fact, it is unfair of me to do so. And that is what is so critical: a recognition that the odds were always in my favour. Despite what societal conceptions of “frontline heroism” may uphold, I am no hero.
My age and good health afforded me a very low risk of severe illness. Prior to contracting the virus, I certainly experienced anxiety but realistically I knew I was well positioned to care for patients whose health status put them in much more dire situations than my own. Even though going to work and seeing patients exposed me to some risk, I was cognizant of the fact that many people were left without work or faced inadequate protection on the job. As a physician, I do not have to face the financial and social challenges that many of my patients struggle with as a consequence of this pandemic.
To highlight the many ways physicians enjoy structural privilege is not meant to discredit the physical and emotional burden of our work. I do want to suggest, however, that while some aspects of our professional hardship are unique, there are many which are shared by workers of all stripes. There is little that separates my 24-hour, on-call shift from the gruelling labour my patient invests for her family, working three minimum wage jobs, commuting between these at all hours of the day and continuing to care for her aging and frail mother. While my role within healthcare and a service worker’s function in the community are both vital, the social benefits that physicians enjoy greatly exceed the compensation of essential workers in traditionally undervalued jobs.
The perils of society’s complacency with inequitable working conditions have played out in food processing plants, mailing and delivery services and most tragically in long-term care homes. Personal support workers deserved a liveable income, paid sick leave, full-time positions and appropriate personal protection training even before COVID exposed how much our systems have failed these workers and the people they care for.
I know there are many physician colleagues whose health status or age places them in a more precarious position than my own. I am among the most fortunate of the fortunate. And there are many ways that physicians and health workers have been exposed to greater risk than they need be, especially early in the pandemic when protective equipment was in short supply.
Bearing these exceptions in mind, I still must confront what I knew even before this pandemic began: that most health outcomes are direct consequences of economic and social circumstance. I may have contracted COVID but at least I did so without financial worry, having the ability to completely isolate myself from my family and remain technologically connected, knowing that there was work for me to return to.
If we are to honour the lives lost and illness experienced by so many Canadians, we must confront the uncomfortable reality that COVID-19, like many other physical and mental diseases, disproportionately impacts those living within systems of social inequity.
Communities banging pots to honour workers and companies delivering meals to hospital staff are thoughtful gestures but ultimately ring hollow. True gratitude should come in the form of significant social change; a basic guaranteed income and universal worker rights.
We have been given an incredible opportunity and I am hopeful that Canadians can be empowered to act on it.
Natalie Munn is a family physician currently practicing in Uxbridge, Ontario.