Don’t Just Applaud the COVID-19 Brave: Pay, Protect Them

It's already starting to wane but for a while there, the first responders on the front line of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic – doctors, nurses, health care workers, EMT teams, paramedics, and people risking their lives to serve others – were being applauded.

What many of them – like supermarket clerks and workers, taxi and bus drivers – weren't getting was the pay and protection and respect they deserve –  before this horror show.

In Greece, some supermarket chains, riding a wave of a more than 30 percent jump in sales after panic buying saw people clear out shelves and back it up with online food buying bringing the companies big profits, decided to pay the staff a bonus.

Nice touch, but these people should have been getting more than the meager wages they earn with helping in the food chain that was taken for granted until a lot of people found out there wasn't any rice left at their favorite market.

Many essential workers have died doing their jobs while the rest of us hunkered down at home making calls for deliveries, waiting on the brave people who brought packages and books and whatever else we needed for our entertainment while they were on motorcycles or delivery vans hoping their masks – if they could find any – and gloves would save them.

At Attikon Hospital in Athens' Peristeri neighborhood, specially-designated to deal with the virus before the pandemic took hold in Greece – the New Democracy government wisely planning before it struck – nurses and health care workers applauded recovering patients being wheeled out of Intensive Care Units (ICUs).

Greek public hospitals, up to the point the pandemic rolled out of China and across the world into an ill-prepared Europe, resembled Third World facilities and you wouldn't have been surprised to see Doctors Without Borders helping out because a near decade of budget cuts under austerity measures left them on life support.

Patients had to hire private nurses to help care for them and critical equipment wasn't maintained because there wasn't enough money. If you were admitted, you had to bring your own toilet paper and other necessities.

So now Greece, like the rest of the world, realizes that the people working in hospitals and clinics and in health care are more necessary than politicians and athletes and entertainers surviving in gated communities and having catered meals brought them.

There was nary a nickel from Greece's billionaire shipping oligarchs who pay and treat the staff on their yachts like cheap help, not like human beings who deserve a living wage and it shouldn't have required a pandemic to show that.

Many of those toiling in supermarkets live measly check to measly check and are ignored, part of the Invisible Class people step over and on because they don't see them, and if you doubt that just say hello and watch a disbelieving smile in return.

There's a woman cashier at a supermarket we frequent who has an obvious health condition but you'd never know it because she's only cheerful and asks about you and your family and it's not a Larry David phony gesture.

It took a long while before the supermarket workers got masks or gloves and they work without protective shields, scores of people passing by daily within the safe social distancing requirement of 1.5 meters (5 feet) that can't happen when someone's handing you money or a credit card and you're touching thousands of products a day without knowing if someone coughed or sneezed on them. Try it.

Doctors and nurses and health care workers worried whether their protective gear would run out or if they'd catch the virus and bring it home to their families. Think your job is tough? Try theirs or just watch supermarket cashiers risking their lives.

In Greece, they get as little as 600 euros ($653) a month and it wasn't uncommon they'd see people come through with enough food in carts that cost more than that.

In 2018, it was estimated that some 17,500 Greek doctors were working in other countries because their country didn't pay or respect them enough to keep them, many giving up under austerity that saw those at public hospitals go unpaid for months.

Now, suddenly, they're being celebrated, along with all those others who are working while we're binge-watching Netflix and binge-drinking bourbon and beer, waiting for the pizza delivery man to show up, maybe without gloves or a mask.

“The extreme sacrifices we are asking front line workers to take require an immediate response to recognize the risks they are facing simply by showing up to do jobs like ringing up groceries, cleaning hospital rooms, driving buses and ambulances, and treating critically ill patients,” the Brookings Institution in Washington wrote.

You can't eat applause so its report recommended a hazard pay bump but it should really translate into a permanent pay hike unless you think it's unfair to pay a cleaning lady, clerk, or nurse a couple of bucks more an hour while letting the rich live off them.

If that's the case, when you're not feeling well, call an oligarch.


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