Defeating Ebola

George Gresham | 11/6/2014, 3:07 p.m.
As president of a health care workers union, my primary responsibility is to defend the interests of our members and ...
George Gresham

As president of a health care workers union, my primary responsibility is to defend the interests of our members and their patients, families and communities. Related to that is our union’s mission to advance our nation towards the more perfect union President Barack Obama frequently calls us to.

Today, our 1199SEIU members, health care workers as a whole and our entire nation are facing the challenge of how best to protect ourselves from the lethal Ebola virus. In our union, we began discussions about the Ebola virus before the disease reached our shores. That discussion climaxed with a mass education session of more than 5,000 members at the Javits Convention Center in Manhattan. The educational program also was watched via webcast by thousands across the country.

The session, which was addressed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, was co-hosted by the Healthcare Education Project—a joint initiative of 1199SEIU and the Greater New York Hospital Association—and the national Partnership for Quality Care.

The speakers represented a broad spectrum of health care experts, including Dr. Mary Bassett, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene; Dr. Howard Zucker, acting commissioner of the New York Department of Health; and representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There was a detailed presentation on Ebola facts and a demonstration of how to put on and take off personal protective gear.

The day’s events brought together labor, management and government to learn from one another. That is consistent with our policy of bringing all stakeholders to the table to get the best of what each has to offer. Only by working together will we be able to bring the virus under control

A guiding principle of our deliberations was the centrality of science. A lack of accurate information can lead to a host of problems, including unnecessary anxiety and even panic. The antidote to that is truth and sound science.

The Ebola virus has reminded us of our world’s interconnectedness. Diseases are but a plane ride away. That is why 1199SEIU has always been concerned with developments beyond our borders. We marched in the historic climate change march in September not only because of our members’ experiences as caregivers and victims of Hurricane Sandy, but also in solidarity with victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and other global warming victims across the globe.

That same impulse guided our opposition to issues such as Apartheid, unjust wars and the suppression of union and civil rights wherever they occurred. So it is with the west coast of Africa, where our sisters and brothers desperately need our support and solidarity.

To date, we have mostly been spared. We know of four Ebola victims in the U.S., with just one in New York. The New York victim is receiving first-rate care in Bellevue Hospital.

This is not the case in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, where a history of under-development has condemned the citizens to far less modern, comprehensive care. The first known case of the present epidemic took place in Liberia, a nation founded in the mid-19th century by citizens of the United States as a colony for former African-American slaves and their free Black descendants. We have an obligation to help the people of West Africa, and addressing the disease at its source is also the best way to protect the U.S.

Our hearts go out to the thousands who have perished or fallen ill to the disease. Moreover, we applaud the courageous doctors, nurses and other health care workers who have traveled to West Africa to fight Ebola at ground zero. These workers should be honored as heroes of one of today’s most important battles. The same applies to those who are treating Ebola patients here at home. Bellevue workers and their children should not be shunned or mistreated.

During difficult times is when it’s most important to summon the better part of ourselves. I am confident that we at 1199SEIU are up to the task, as we have proved so often in the past. Our members’ responses to 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy are two examples.

Through increased knowledge, safe staffing, constant practice, access to the best protective gear and the mastering of protocols, we can care for our patients, protect our health care workers, safeguard our communities and, ultimately, conquer the Ebola virus.