What If Jobless U.S. Workers Were Hired to Fight Coronavirus?
Last Mile Health CEO Raj Panjabi argues community health workers are a win-win for fighting Covid-19
There are more than 200,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 reported worldwide as of March 19. Continued sharp increases in infections may overwhelm health systems in any country, but especially places that are facing shortages of nurses, doctors, and other frontline health providers. The pandemic is also dealing an economic blow. People across America and around the world are losing their jobs as requirements to cancel large gatherings of people, social distance, or shelter in place make it impossible for many businesses to continue. Earlier this week it was reported that the pandemic could drive up unemployment to 20%, a rate not seen since the Great Depression, leaving 32 million Americans without a job. In New York, the state’s unemployment website temporarily crashed when the number of unique users rose fivefold in a day.
What if Americans who are unemployed by the pandemic could be hired to fight it? In the United States and around the world, local residents without a medical or nursing degree have been rapidly trained, hired, and equipped to respond to other epidemics that have spiraled out of control.
In the 1950s, an epidemic of another severe respiratory illness — tuberculosis — was widespread in the state of Alaska. One out of every 30 Alaskans was in a tuberculosis hospital. Across Alaska’s tundra, sick people lived in fishing communities sometimes hundreds of miles from each other and out of reach of the limited doctors in the state.
Around the world, community health workers are humanity’s soldiers in our war against epidemics.
Help came from an unexpected place: the neighbors of tuberculosis patients. Alaska Native women, most without a high school degree, were hired and trained by nurses and doctors in their own villages as so-called community health workers. Within a few weeks, they learned to administer medications for latent tuberculosis to their sick neighbors, monitoring for complications and side effects. Remotely supervised by licensed providers like nurses over radio…