How much do people actually care about health workers?

Doctors and nurses are spent, and not in a way that a few days off or a round of nightly applause can restore.

The writer wears PPE at work at a hospital in Seattle [Photo courtesy of Sabreen Akhter]

A picture is going around social media that shows an illustration of a healthcare worker in full personal protective equipment (PPE), holding a sick patient’s bed above the water as the worker themself is drowning.

It is beautifully drawn and an apt visual for how the majority of healthcare workers I know feel at the moment.

Before this picture, a meme was going around showing an illustration of a healthcare worker putting on PPE while their open white coat reveals a superhero logo on the shirt underneath. Before that, there were memes with healthcare workers all over the United States holding up signs stating, “We stayed at work for you. You stay at home for us.”

While I’m certainly a fan of the well-timed meme, I’ve never shared any of these on my social media platforms. I have noticed, in my circles, that these memes get plenty of “likes” from healthcare workers or our loved ones, but don’t garner much attention beyond that. In other words, I’m not sure how much people actually care.

This question of caring is one that I’m grappling with a lot these days, as I sense the exhaustion around me at work in my hospital’s emergency department. This time, as our country slips further up the unending mountain of COVID-19 positive cases in this third and worst surge, the exhaustion feels different.

At the start of this pandemic, when the death tolls from the novel coronavirus were high and all our systems were scrambling to get a handle on how to best inform the public, treat the sick and handle the deceased, healthcare workers were also depleted. But in that moment of a kind of national unity around the virus, of hope that a temporary lockdown would “flatten the curve”, the weariness from my peers had a different tenor.

It was more physical, from the long hours spent at work under layers of steamy protective gear, of the sleepless nights spent worrying about contracting the virus and bringing it home to our families, of the elaborate routines to decontaminate ourselves after work.

But along with the pictures shared on social media of the tired faces showcasing facial bruises and nasal bridge ulcers caused by N-95 use, there was a sense of privilege and purpose. Of being present at that moment in history and being able to care for the masses in need.

Now, my co-workers are spent, and, I fear, not in a way that a few days off or a round of nightly applause can restore.

Compassion fatigue is real, especially all these months into a pandemic when it appears that half the population of this country no longer cares, about their loved ones, about their neighbours, or about you.

While constraints on hospital capacity and resources are a very real and present danger in many places around the US, every healthcare worker I know is enduring significant psychological distress from the callousness we perceive around us in the world, the oath we have taken to maintain compassion in the face of it all, and the crisis of reconciling these two realities.

Though it is clear that many ethnic and racial minorities are getting sick from close family members or from essential work or care, and that some populations have been disproportionately affected, it is also clear that a large proportion of our nation either no longer believes in the gravity of this disease, or no longer cares. In nearly every conversation I have with co-workers, the themes are the same: of exasperation, of bewilderment, of anger.

It is not lost on me, every time I put on my mask at work, that this pandemic has revealed many more hidden masks that have progressively fallen off through the months, laying bare the truths that we are now facing. The mask that the majority of the public believes in science and public health expertise, is gone. The mask that our country would easily adopt simple safety measures and be unified in our response, is gone. The mask that, as humans in communities with other humans, we would prioritise caring for our most vulnerable members over ourselves, is gone.

It leaves me to wonder, after all those layers of mask have fallen away, what is left: something smooth and featureless, with shallow wells for eyes and a mouth that won’t speak. Something not quite human.

People who work in healthcare are not historians in the classic sense, but we do hold the histories of people’s bodies – of the children who come from them, of the families created, of the traumas endured, of the decisions made or those made upon a person. We record these detailed histories in the health record, and those histories stay with us: What is your diet like? How have you been sleeping? Do you feel your heart racing? We do not yet have a place to record the most relevant question of today: How did you act when your fellow human was suffering?

The healthcare workers who hold the hands of our elderly as they pass, and then on their way home pass bars crowded with people – they will remember. Those who are isolating themselves from their loved ones, only to read text chains of extended friends and family members gathering – they will remember. And those who sweat all day under layers of PPE, never touching their phones, who at the end of the day see their social media filled with pictures of friends taking selfies on their holiday trips, their unmasked faces pressed heedlessly together – they will remember.

We have long memories; ones that exist outside of the electronic health records that we keep. And these are times that we will never forget.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.