Covid-19 has been likened to a stealth enemy attacking the fabric and well-being of our society. This epidemic has given rise to the largest federal stimulus package in history. As terms suggestive of wartime are being used to describe this clinical siege, clinicians working in the country’s hospitals and medical facilities represent the front line of defense.
Tragically, many of them are being sent to work ill-equipped and poorly protected. Reports of physicians, nurses, and other health care workers scrounging for protective equipment or using garbage bags as protective gowns, common office supplies as masks, or re-using masks — fearful of confusing the tainted side with the protective side — should concern everyone reliant on their valor.
In spite of shortages of supplies and the emotional toll of caring for a growing swell of individuals taken suddenly and critically ill, U.S. health care workers press on. They are creatively improvising in real time, trying to protect themselves and their families from their workplace risks. They are stripping their possibly contaminated clothes on doorsteps before entering their homes or apartments, they are sending their children to family members who are not in the medical profession, or separating themselves from their families in makeshift garages or basement “bunkers.”
Health care workers on the frontlines rightfully deserve the nation’s collective embrace and thanks.
Companies and philanthropic organizations are trying to supplement governmental efforts to fast-track the manufacture of needed equipment including gloves, masks, and gowns. These efforts, which deserve their own thanks, comprise one way to salute and support health care workers fighting Covid-19.
I believe there is another way the nation could tangibly recognize the selfless contributions of those on the medical frontlines. Many of those now exposing themselves to illness or worse are laboring under thousands upon thousands of dollars of student loan debt — the average is around $180,000 — accrued during their medical training. The nation should consider forgiving part or all of this debt for individuals working to keep us alive and well.
Soldiers in other wars were never asked to pay thousands of dollars before being sent to battle. We should honor the health care workers who are putting themselves at risk of infection as they care for patients with and without Covid-19 with the nation’s gratitude and easing their financial burdens by forgiving their student loan debt.
Robin Gelburd is the president of FAIR Health Inc., a national nonprofit aimed at improving the U.S. health care system. The perspectives expressed here are hers alone and do not necessarily represent those of FAIR Health.