Registered nurses are professionals that care for, educate, and advise patients and their families about healthcare. These American heroes – often unseen and unheard, burdened with student debt – have become the lynchpin for the COVID-19 response and a crucial element in our community’s health and safety.

In layman’s terms, we need nurses just as much as we need firefighters, paramedics, and members of our armed services – professionals that have their training subsidized or entirely covered by the government. While hard to imagine now, in post-coronavirus America, we should respect, cherish, and uplift our registered nurses. That starts with providing free nursing education programs in every state and forgiving the student loan debt of all nurses on the frontline.

Since the beginning of the novel coronavirus pandemic, more than 5,000 nurses, doctors, and related hospital personnel in the United States have contracted COVID-19, and dozens have died. Early numbers have shown just how much of a toll this pandemic is taking on the members of our nation’s healthcare community – many of whom have been forced to treat sick patients without adequate personal protective gear.

We need nurses in our hospitals, doctor’s offices, and ambulatory care centers. Sadly, there aren’t enough of them. And the ones we do have, need to have the utmost protection from contaminating the coronavirus. That’s why they should be supplied with enough medical supplies to stay safe during the pandemic as possible, to ensure that they can continue caring for the people who need it the most. It’s just unfortunate that there is a shortage of these essential health workers. With tens of thousands of nursing positions going unfilled each year, the United States, by all measures, seems to be caught in the middle of a prolonged nursing shortage that has been brought to the forefront by COVID-19.

It was birthed out of the lack of clinical education settings needed to train the 150,000 students that nursing schools turn out each year. An aging nursing school faculty has compounded this situation.

This shortage should be breaking news, but sadly, mainstream media and our elected officials seem to be coming up short on an issue that deserves national attention. For many, this shortage, skyrocketing student loan debt for currently employed nurses, and the lack of investment in our national nursing infrastructure aren’t severe matters. However, the lack of caring nurses could be a matter of life and death during this pandemic and for decades to come for communities that look and love like me.

With healthcare costs on the rise, and relentless attacks on the Affordable Care Act in Washington, D.C. and state capitals throughout the country, the health and wellness of our community has been taken for granted – with one caveat. The registered nurses that live work (on the clock or voluntarily), and worship among us, are some of the most trusted and accessible caregivers in our community, whether it be for the expectant mother, the neighbor recovering from cancer, or the church brother who has diabetes.

Nearly five decades ago, my recently retired mother, then a registered nurse, graduated from nursing school at Jamaica’s Kingston Public Hospital. Unlike the United States today, Jamaica back then provided nursing education almost free to eligible students. As a result of this action, the small island nation not only produced thousands of nurses that currently work in U.S. hospitals but also averted the nursing shortage that has and continues to plague America’s now beleaguered healthcare system.

We often think about Jamaica and other developing countries as behind the United States when it comes to policy and progress, but this time around, we can learn from them. As we approach the recovery period of this pandemic, our nation requires radical reform that can reinflate our economy and shore-up our besieged healthcare system. That reform should include a massive investment in nursing education, including:

  • more funding for nursing schools
  • free or reduced tuition for nursing students
  • forgiveness of nursing educational student loans
  • funds for our HBCUs and community colleges to establish and maintain nursing education programs
  • dedicated funding to train, educate, and graduate more nurse educators and faculty members

In terms of repairing the economy, I also think that a lot more needs to be done to promote the different options for financial support that are available to individuals and businesses during these uncertain times. For example, online lending companies have noticed some worrying trends over the past few months. You can click here to learn more about how online lending companies are confronting the ongoing economic crisis.

Anyway, growing up, my mother would always repeat this powerful Jamaican proverb, “Today for you, tomorrow for me,” and she was right! If we want high-quality nurses caring for us tomorrow, we must invest in them today.

COVID-19 has sharpened the critical role that nurses play in the health and safety of our communities and nation at large. Now is the opportunity to show reverence to these healers by investing in their education, forgiving their student loan debt, and valuing their role as essential to our well-being.

Story credit to Richard Fowler/The Grio.

Photo credit to The Grio.

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