Editor’s Note: Jillian Horton is a Canadian physician and the author of “We Are All Perfectly Fine: A Memoir of Love, Medicine and Healing.” Follow her on Twitter @jillianhortonMD. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Attention health care workers: Bari Weiss wants you to know she is done with Covid.
She has stripped her clothing. She has sprayed her Pringles. She has watched “Tiger King.” She went so hard on Covid. It was awful. She is done.
Weiss made her big announcement last Friday during a guest appearance on “Real Time with Bill Maher.”
“(We) were told, ‘You get the vaccine. You get the vaccine and you get back to normal,” said Weiss. “And … we haven’t gotten back to normal….People are killing themselves. They’re anxious. They are depressed. They are lonely. That is why we need to end it, more than any inconvenience that it’s been to the rest of us.” Since last week, Weiss has doubled down on her comments on her Twitter account.
Weiss is the former New York Times journalist best known for her departure from that paper. In a resignation letter posted to her own website, Weiss complained that she had been subjected to constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with her views, and that the Times had “become a kind of performance space.” A New York Times spokesperson then said the company is “committed to fostering an environment of honest, searching and empathetic dialogue between colleagues, one where mutual respect is required of all.”
I had followed Weiss’ resignation with interest – in no small part because I am drawn to nuanced conversations about the loss of nuance itself in academic and intellectual discourse. But as I watched Weiss’ performance in the space across from Maher – who was quick to testify that he didn’t take the same Covid precautions as Weiss – I did not see much in the way of nuance. I found myself comparing her comments to the quiet suffering of my colleagues in health care, the ones who never get to say they are “done.”
One of my areas of academic interest is physician burnout and mental health – a problem that was widely regarded as a public health crisis before the pandemic even began. A 2020 study published in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) Psychiatry compared the resilience levels of doctors to other employed people in the US and found that there was higher resilience in physicians after adjustment for sex, age and burnout amongst other factors.
But the pandemic has been a relentless physical and mental assault for anyone who works in a hospital, leaving resilient health care professionals of all stripes at the end of their ropes. Another study published in JAMA Psychiatry, conducted in Canada, looked at the need for substance use and mental health services among physicians and on average found a 13% increase in the rate of utilization of these services per physician during the first 12 months of the pandemic. While the “I’m done with Covid” manifesto may be good for Substack subscriptions, it is a genuine blow to the morale of health care workers who have been shouldering the physical and emotional impacts of working on the frontlines for almost two years and are wondering how much longer they can go on.
Having resigned from a job she deemed toxic and undoable, one might think Weiss would take greater care to show sympathy for health care workers, who are now leaving their own impossible environments. Medicine is experiencing what Atlantic writers Ed Yong and Derek Thompson call the “Great Resignation.” Indeed, one in five health care workers have already left their jobs since the start of the pandemic, according to data intelligence company Morning Consult. And 21% of nurses reported that they intended to leave their positions in the next 6 months, according to the American Nurses Foundation, with another third saying they too were considering an exit.
This tracks with the stories appearing almost daily in major newspapers: professionals unable to keep up with a chronic state of emergency, traumatized after being harassed and threatened by families who believe Covid is a conspiracy, haunted by the risks of providing care in the context of health care collapse. “Showing up for work as a centrist at an American newspaper should not require bravery,” Weiss wrote, in her own great resignation. But how much bravery – and how much sacrifice – is it fair for us to continue to expect from nurses, respiratory therapists and cleaning staff under the current circumstances?
In all fairness, Weiss is hardly the first person I have heard say they are done with the pandemic. I hear it almost every day from colleagues, resident doctors, nurses and medical students. Some of them are weeping when they say it. Some seem like shadows of themselves and are now under the care of psychiatrists and therapists. Many more are suffering without treatment. They have not had time to watch “Tiger King,” or to listen to Spotify. They too would like to change the channel. But they have been too busy intubating, palliating, showing up day after day to do the hard things people do for one another in health care. They are anxious and depressed, without a way to “end it.” It is awful. They are done. But many politicians and health care systems exploited the good, decent instincts of health care workers before the pandemic, and that phenomenon will probably never end.
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In medicine, we agonize and fret over the right thing to do to save a single life in front of us and are frequently haunted by those cases for the rest of our lives. Meanwhile, Weiss seemed to dismiss the deaths of more than 878,000 Americans as barely a footnote.
In a bit of foreshadowing when she resigned, Weiss warned the world, “Speak your mind at your own peril!”
Indeed. Because then people will know who you really are.