The 332nd Fighter Group of the U.S. Fifteenth Air Force in World War II are better known now as the Tuskegee Airmen. As bombers flew over Nazi Germany, they wanted the best escorts to protect them, and that meant the Tuskegee Airmen. The group flew 1,500 combat mission and 200 escort mission during the war, with more than 15,000 individual sorties, garnering 850 awards. Their motivation was to win the war, but it was also to prove their worth because so much was riding on their success for the folks back home.
In the late 1930s, the German army was spreading through Europe. Although the U.S. hadn’t yet declared war, thousands of Americans were signing up to fight overseas as pilots. But at the time, racist stereotypes were widespread in the U.S. military. The Armed Forces were segregated, with black servicemen often restricted to working menial labor jobs. Nowhere was this inequality more apparent than in the Army Air Corps, which didn’t just segregate black servicemen from their white counterparts, but outright excluded them.
To justify, military leaders pointed to a racist Army War College report released after the First World War. The report claimed black people were an inferior “sub-species” of human who lacked the intelligence and courage to serve in combat, especially in challenging roles like pilots.
For decades, civil rights leaders had been fighting against such prejudice, lobbying for equal treatment in the military. The pressure mounted when the U.S. started preparing for war. In 1938, anticipating the need for more pilots, the Army Air Corps began establishing flight schools at colleges all across the country, excluding black schools. However, advocates’ efforts were about to pay off. In 1940, while campaigning for his third presidential term, Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised to start the first training program for black military pilots.
I took this from a Scientific America article by Joshua Lerner.
Joshua Lerner is an emergency physician practicing in north-central Massachusetts.
In one of the most vivid scenes in the HBO miniseries Chernobyl, soldiers dressed in leather smocks ran out into radioactive areas to literally shovel radioactive material out of harm’s way. Horrifically underprotected, they suited up anyway to do their job. In later scenes, soldiers fashioned protection from scrap metal out of desperation while patrolling other hazardous areas.
Please don’t tell me that in the richest country in the world in the 21st century, I’m supposed to work in a fictionalized Soviet-era disaster zone and fashion my own face mask out of cloth while others in our country hoard supplies for personal use and profiteering as so-called leaders sit around in meetings hearing themselves talk. I ran to a bedside the other day to intubate a crashing, likely COVID, patient. Two respiratory therapists and two nurses were already at the bedside. That’s five N95 masks, five gowns, five face shields and 10 gloves for one patient at one time. I saw probably 15–20 patients during that shift. If we are going to start rationing supplies, what percentage of them should I wear precautions for?
Make no mistake, the CDC’s loosening of personal protection equipment (PPE) guidelines is a result of our country not being prepared. Loosening guidelines increases health care workers’ risk, but the decision is done to allow us to keep working. It is done for the public benefit—so I can continue to work no matter the personal cost to me or my family (and my health care family). It is easier to loosen standards than it is to adhere to them. Sending health care workers to the front line asking them to cover their face with a bandana is akin to sending a soldier to the front in a t-shirt and flip flops.
I don’t want talk. I don’t want assurances. I want action. I want boxes of N95 masks piling up in hospitals, donated from the people who hoarded them or from stockpiles of less critical use. I want nonclinical hospital administrators lining up in the ER asking if they can stock shelves to make sure that when I need to rush into a room, the drawer of PPE equipment I open isn’t empty. I want them showing up in the ER asking “how can I help” instead of offering shallow plans conceived by someone who has spent far too long in an ivory tower and not long enough in the trenches. I want them in the trenches beside me for this fight. We need as many helping hands as we can get.
I want multibillion-dollar companies like 3M halting all production of any product that isn’t PPE to focus on PPE manufacturing. I want a company like Amazon, with its logistics mastery (it can drop a package to your door less than 24 hours after you ordered it), halting its two-day delivery of toilet paper to the highest bidder in order to help deliver available PPE supplies fast and efficiently to my brothers and sisters in arms across this nation who need them.
I want Procter & Gamble, and the makers of other soaps and detergents, stepping up too. We need detergent to clean scrubs, hospital linens and gowns. We need disinfecting wipes to clean desk and computer surfaces. What about plastics manufacturers? Plastic gowns aren’t some high-tech device—they are long shirts/smocks, made out of plastic. Let’s get on it. Face shields. Nitrile gloves. Let’s go.
Money talks in this country. Executives and millionaires, could you spare some money to buy back some masks from the hoarders and then drop them off at the nearest hospital? Nobody condones price gouging, but nurses and paramedics cannot afford to buy a mask for $50; maybe you can.
I love biotechnology and research, but we need to divert viral culture media for COVID testing and research. We need biotechnology manufacturing ready and able to ramp up if and when treatments or vaccines are developed. Our Botox supply isn’t critical, but our antibiotic supply is. We need to be able to make more plastic endotracheal tubes, not more silicone breast implants. And we need ventilators, a lot of them. Tesla engineers can you get to work?
Let’s see all that. Then we can talk about how we all played our part in this fight. Netflix and chill is not enough while my family, friends and colleagues are out there fighting. Our country won two world wars because the entire country mobilized. We outproduced and out-manufactured everyone else while our soldiers outfought the enemy. Today, we need that level of commitment again. Make no mistake: we are at war. Health care workers are your soldiers, and the battle has just begun.