Hospital closings = death

Protest in Harlem, N.Y., 1978. Keep Sydenham open.
Protest 1980

Will hospitals be able to cope with all the expected patients during the Covid-19 pandemic? New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo doesn’t think so. He told NBC’s Today Show on March 19 that “the health care system is going to be overwhelmed.”

What the governor didn’t talk about is whether elderly people will be left to die like roadkill. That may already be happening in Italy.

As of March 12, there were only 737 intensive care unit (ICU) beds available in Italy’s Lombardy region, which has 10 million people. Over 16,000 people there have the coronavirus. 

The Italian College of Anesthesia, Analgesia, Resuscitation and Intensive Care declared that “it may become necessary to establish an age limit for access to intensive care.” That’s a death sentence for the aged. It won’t be any different in the United States.

Italy asked for assistance from its NATO allies France and Germany. The wealthy ruling classes of those countries refused to help.

China, Cuba and Venezuela sent Italy doctors and supplies. That’s what socialist solidarity looks like. 

Italy’s catastrophe was years in the making. Between 2000 and 2017, the number of hospital beds there fell by 28 percent. In the same period, the number of beds in Britain declined 30 percent. That’s what capitalist austerity looks like.  

The U.S. medical-industrial complex got rid of 89,000 beds, a 9 percent cut. Twenty thousand of the hospital beds thrown away were in New York state, according to the New York State Nurses Association.

Socialist China built temporary hospitals in a few days, but the best President Trump can do is to promise to send a military hospital ship to New York City in a couple of weeks. The U.S. now has just 2.8 hospital beds per thousand people. Despite 60 years of being economically blockaded by the capitalist U.S., socialist Cuba has almost twice that number

It’s not just a shortage of hospital beds. There’s also not enough ventilators, the life-saving machines that pump oxygen into a person’s lungs. New York needs 18,000 of them. Nor can capitalism supply doctors and other front line medical workers with sufficient masks, gowns and eye gear

Even the Washington Post, owned by Amazon’s billionaire boss Jeff Bezos, calls this “a nightmare scenario.” President Trump’s response to governors requesting help was “respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment — try getting it yourselves.” 

Profits before people

Just as capitalism has shut down thousands of factories in the U.S., so has it closed hundreds of hospitals. “Since 2010, 121 rural hospitals have closed. The National Rural Health Association says more than one-third of all rural U.S. hospitals are at serious risk of shutting down.” 

For over 40 years, the capitalist class in New York City has been on a hospital-closing binge. Twenty-one hospitals in the city were shut just between 2000 and 2013

The biggest victims were the Asian, Black and Latinx communities. In Brooklyn, there are just two hospital beds per thousand people.

Brooklyn’s Long Island College Hospital, which closed in 2014, once had 500 beds. Peninsula General Hospital was shut down in 2012, leaving only one hospital to serve the Far Rockaway section of Queens. 

St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village, with over 700 beds, closed in 2010, resulting in 3,000 workers fired. Probably even more beds were lost when Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan’s Lower East Side was downsized to just 70 beds.

Two hundred beds were lost when Harlem’s North General Hospital closed in 2010. Four hundred ninety beds were lost when Cabrini Medical Center on Manhattan’s East 19th Street closed in 2008. Two hundred fifty-five beds were lost and 850 workers were fired when French Hospital, located near Penn Station, was shut down in 1977. 

Some hospitals were turned into expensive apartments. That’s what happened to Caledonian Hospital on Brooklyn’s Parkside Avenue, which closed in 2003. One-bedroom apartments there were renting for $2,300 per month in 2014. Eight hundred eighty-six beds were lost when Brooklyn Jewish Hospital on Classon Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant was closed in 1983 and converted into apartments.

Doctors Hospital in Manhattan’s Yorkville neighborhood had 210 beds and employed 850 workers. It closed in 2004 and was replaced by a new 19-story building containing 110 condominiums. St. John’s Hospital in the Elmhurst section of Queens closed in 2009 and was turned into “150 luxury apartments.”  

The late communist leader Vince Copeland helped lead efforts in the 1980s to keep the Jersey City Medical Center open. It once had 1,800 beds, but the buildings were turned into a luxury complex called the Beacon. The replacement facility has just 308 beds.

The lure of real estate profits also led to last year’s closing of Philadelphia’s Hahnemann University Hospital with 496 beds. 

Never forget Sydenham

The capitalist class wants to get rid of or privatize all public hospitals. That includes veterans’ hospitals.

New York City Mayor Abe Beame fired 50,000 municipal workers in 1975, including thousands of hospital workers. The next year, Beame shut down Fordham Hospital in the Bronx with 387 beds. 

Mayor Ed Koch, who succeeded Beame, wanted to close Metropolitan Hospital in El Barrio (East Harlem), which is still in operation.

The biggest struggle was to keep Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital open. It was the first municipal hospital to hire Black doctors and it trained many Black nurses.

Among them was the late Baltimore activist Leola Brooks, who was a board member of the local NAACP chapter. When she was going to school, neither Johns Hopkins nor the University of Maryland would admit any African American students. So Leola Brooks came to Sydenham Hospital instead.

Five thousand people marched down Harlem’s 125th Street on March 25, 1976, to keep it open. Among the speakers was Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton, who had been Malcolm X’s lawyer and friend.

Struggle kept Sydenham open for several years, but Koch was determined to shut it down. A sit-in was viciously attacked by police on Sept. 19, 1980, injuring 30 people.

The Rev. Wyatt T. Walker, who had been a co-worker of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., called the police brutality as bad as anything that occured in Birmingham or Selma, Ala.

Although Sydenham was closed, the fierce struggle probably kept the other municipal hospitals open.

The $4 trillion capitalist health care system is incapable of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. We have to organize ourselves just to survive. A socialist revolution is more necessary than ever.

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