We’re about to enter the grimmest period of the covid-19 pandemic, with cases, hospitalizations, and deaths spiking across the country and with holiday travel and gatherings driving what will likely be a deadly surge. As the Washington Post noted, we may soon “reach levels where hospitals are forced to choose which patients to save and which to let die, and where lockdowns become unavoidable realities of everyday life.”
That this is bleak goes without saying. That this is a situation brought about largely by the massive failure of our government, run as it is by the Republican death cult and bringing to mind what the scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore has coined “organized state abandonment,” also goes without saying, despite all of the scoldings about individual behavior and personal responsibility.
And the story of Dr. Joseph Varon, the chief of staff at Houston’s United Memorial Medical Center who was captured in a heartbreaking photo on Thanksgiving Day embracing an older patient, illustrates the very human toll of that abandonment.
Varon has worked for 256 days straight—let that sink in for a moment!—and in a series of interviews with CNN, he spoke about the toll of the pandemic on himself, his staff, and their patients. “This is taking a huge toll. Not only on me but on my health care people that work with me. My nurses, in the middle of the day they will start crying because you know they are getting so many patients and it’s a never-ending story,” Varon told CNN, adding, “When they finish finally getting a patient in, they get a phone call from the ER that there is another patient that is being admitted.”
He added, “Unfortunately, my concerns for the next six to 12 weeks is that if we don’t do things right, America is going to see the darkest day in modern American medical history.”
Varon framed the surge in cases and hospitalization squarely as one of personal responsibility, and urged people to take basic precautions. “I do this day in and day out and people are out there doing the wrong thing. People are out there in bars, restaurants, malls—it is crazy—it’s like we work, work, work, work, work and people don’t listen and then they end up in my ICU,” he said. He added, “What people need to know is that—I don’t want to have to be hugging them. They need to do the basic things: keep your social distance; wear your mask; wash your hands and avoid going to places where there are a lot of people. Very simple. If people can do that health care workers like me will be able to—hopefully rest.”
I can understand why Varon is frustrated, and I truly can’t imagine the horror of working in a hospital right now. But personal responsibility can only collectively take us so far. The failures of the Trump administration to confront the pandemic, failures which have trickled down into our states and cities and into our neighborhoods, is ultimately to blame.