Deborah Burger, president of the 225,000-member National Nurses United, delivered a plenary
address to 300 people gathered on-line for the annual Reducing the Threat of Nuclear War
Conference, hosted by MIT groups and Mass. Peace Action in January 2023.
– Jonathan King, conference chair
By Deborah Burger
I have been a bedside nurse for over 30 years and a union leader for more than two decades. I will begin my comments on the social and public health costs of militarization with some reflections on structural violence and the global pandemic.
Too often in the past three years, the front lines of the pandemic have been described as a war zone. It is true that the grave breakdown of the public health infrastructure in many parts of the world left nurses battling with our employers to provide adequate staffing, proper PPE, and necessary medical supplies as we fought to save patient lives.
In the United States, our government and employers abjectly failed to protect health care workers and our patients, leading to well over a million deaths, including over 5575 health care workers, 497 registered nurses and 29 of our NNU union members.
These unnecessary deaths were foreshadowed in government and media messages that equated a national pandemic response with war mobilization, rather than with coordinated community care. In part, we were unprepared for the pandemic because America’s public health system has been hollowed out in favor of military spending and nuclear weapons build up.
Yet, during a peak in Covid-19 deaths and calls to reopen the economy prematurely, the U.S. military conducted a series of flyovers in many cities to salute so-called “health care heroes.” These costly and extremely symbolic gestures silenced the on-the-ground demands of health care workers (a majority female and people of color work force) who were being forced to put their lives on the line with little to no protection.
The health care workers being “celebrated” in these military salutes were not on active military duty. Recognizing them as military heroes in the line of duty made a very preventable crisis and dangerous on-the-ground conditions seem inevitable.
Had the nation really wanted to use its military resources to support nurses and other health care workers, the government could have listened to our demands and invoked the Defense Production Act to produce adequate supply of PPE. They did not do this.
They left health care workers fending for themselves against corporate employers and turned the pandemic into a political war zone. From the perspective of bedside nurses globally, war is never cause for celebration because war contributes to premature death and harm.
War does not just harm active combatants, and it doesn’t just kill and maim by bullets and bombs. War disrupts and destroys the productive economy that people depend on for food security and to meet basic needs. War devastates infrastructure, including water systems, public health services, medical services, medicines, medical facilities, transportation, and telecommunications. War creates unhealthy environments, and it increases human exposure to military toxics, hazards and depleted uranium.
U.S. investment in war has resulted in staggering forms of mass violence across large parts of the world. U.S. military action has included countless coups, political assassinations, and small scale-interventions to advance pro-business market goals and to expand corporate rights that undermine the global protection of labor.
Representing and regarding hospitals as a military front during the pandemic similarly contributed to the for-profit corporate agenda that holds our healthcare system and health equity hostage in this country.
The use of social wealth and tax resources to build and sustain the military rather than fulfilling universal needs like clean water, food, housing, education and a universal healthcare system (like Medicare for All) deepens socially produced scarcities and social inequalities. The pandemic exposed the dangers of this inequity, calling on us to divest from military systems that produce global conflict and harm and redirect those resources into increased public health, public well-being, global solidarity, and care. It is precisely through such redistribution that we can lead the way to health equity.
The U.S. military has over 800 U.S. military bases in an estimated 80 foreign nations and territories. These bases are responsible for increased environmental damage, increased carbon emissions, violence (including sexual violence and murder) and military accidents that compromise the health and safety of communities around the world.
Nurses in our Global Nurses United Network, from Honduras to Puerto Rico repeatedly report higher rates of chronic stress, mental health crises, cardiovascular disease and cancer and violence in areas associated with arms sales and military presence. Half of the U.S. government’s discretionary budget goes to military spending and weapons build up while vast numbers of people lack adequate health care, education, housing, and other basic needs.
Union nurses believe that budgets are moral documents that should be dedicated to funding policies that sustain life instead of destroying life. As patient advocates, protecting the lives and health of patients is our top priority. This is why we put our union power behind fighting for policies that put resources into sectors of the economy that are focused on nurturing the health, welfare, maintenance, and protection of all people.
Right now, excessive military spending is starving the care economy. Care work is labor intensive; and years of divestment in public infrastructure and profit seeking by private companies have left many health care workers, teachers, child-care providers and other care workers with inadequate staff and safety protections.
There are over 4.4 million RNs with active licenses in the United States, but only 3.2 million currently employed as nurses. Since the beginning of the pandemic, nearly 1 in five health care workers in the U.S. have quit their jobs due to exhaustion, unsafe conditions, and moral injury.
The last three years have been a public health nightmare and the continued gutting of public health continues to turn our health system into a disaster zone. At National Nurses United, we invite groups to get involved in our fights for Medicare for All, and our fight for patient care protections and health care justice through our Nurse Advocacy network. Local groups can also get involved in state nurses’ unions fighting to improve patient health at the bedside and in our communities.
Join the Nurse Advocacy Network here:
Join the fight for Medicare for All here: