Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, is a world-class facility dedicated to caring for those who bravely sacrifice and serve this country.
When President Donald Trump entered the hospital earlier this month to be treated for COVID-19, he was greeted with a team of world-renowned doctors ready to provide him with gold-standard medical care, experimental vaccines and all of the resources he needed to recover. He stayed comfortably in the hospital’s presidential suite, equipped with a kitchen, living room, conference room and dining room with a crystal chandelier.
My co-workers know these rooms well, as they were tasked with cleaning the president’s suite. I’ve worked as a contracted cleaner at Walter Reed for 16 years, scrubbing toilets, floors, windows, ceilings, walls, countertops and more.
I am blessed to have my job. But here’s the thing. Within the walls of Walter Reed, there is a tale of two pandemics. The president received the best medical attention that taxpayer money could buy ― to the tune of over $100,000. But as the housekeepers, janitors, cooks, security and other service workers at Walter Reed, our experience with COVID-19 has been nothing like Mr. Trump’s.
We were told to only go to the hospital if we had trouble breathing because, thanks to the Trump administration’s failure to control the pandemic, our health care system was too overwhelmed to care for us.
I had COVID-19 earlier this year, as did several of my colleagues. We all have had several friends and family members pass away from the virus, including nearly 140 members of my union, SEIU 32BJ. We did not have the benefit of being rushed to a hospital with a team of doctors devoted to us. All we could do was isolate ourselves at home and do everything we could to beat it on our own. We were told to only go to the hospital if we had trouble breathing because, thanks to the Trump administration’s failure to control the pandemic, our health care system was too overwhelmed to care for us.
Health care workers were left to frantically triage patients into tiny hospital rooms and hallways packed with beds. There were not even enough ventilators to go around, a shameful reality inside a first-world nation.
Like millions of Americans, I had to deal with the uncertainty that comes with this virus. After seeing so many people in my community and inside Walter Reed face it, testing positive was one of my deepest fears realized. Would the side effects suddenly get worse? What will I do if I have trouble breathing? I reckoned with the chance that I could die. Who would provide for my family, and what kind of a future would they have without a mother?
Unlike the president, I had no professional care to reassure me or treat new pains or changes in my condition. I took care of myself drinking home remedies, alone in my bedroom. I tried to stay calm and reassure myself that I’d fully recover. I did everything I could not to expose my family.
Unlike the president, I am a devout Catholic who believes that life is too precious to do anything that might cause someone harm. As is always the case, my faith in God helped me get through from one day to the next. When I recovered, I quarantined for two weeks, and I continue to wear a mask whether I’m at work or outside. I always stay away from groups of people.
We’ve been bearing the brunt of this crisis physically and emotionally, while the president continues not to take this pandemic seriously. His administration calls us essential, but no one recognizes our hard work or pays us what we deserve.
The insulting irony is that the president ignores every guideline that we faithfully follow. My co-workers and I have taken every step possible to avoid spreading this virus for months. We have always worked hard to maintain high standards, but now our work can be a matter of life or death for us, our families and those who’ve sacrificed for this nation.
The pressure of knowing that a single mistake could get you or someone else infected is ever present, even when you go home at night. We disinfect everything. We wear masks, gloves, PPE and wash our hands religiously to avoid getting others sick, a basic human decency.
That’s why it’s so hard to believe that our own president not only downplays the virus, but has also been reckless in handling his own COVID-19 infection. Minutes after returning to the White House, he took off his mask and walked inside, exposing anyone nearby to this potentially deadly illness.
He continues to spout complete lies and headed back on the campaign trail, only a week after his hospital stay. His rallies of maskless supporters packed shoulder to shoulder expose his staff, Secret Service agents, local communities and health care workers. His superspreader events are perpetuating sickness, death and economic hardship for American families. He ignores social distancing guidelines and rarely wears a mask ― and the worst part is that others follow his lead.
It especially angers me to watch as he campaigns to win over Latino voters, while Black and Latino people are roughly two to three times more likely than their white counterparts to contract the coronavirus, roughly four times more likely to be hospitalized and nearly three times as likely to die from the virus that the president has failed to contain.
Every person who cleaned Mr. Trump’s suite at Walter Reed was Latino. He does not care about us ― he cares about himself and his wallet.
I will never forgive the president for putting so many lives in danger when his job is to protect us. It fills me with deep sadness. I cried for the White House housekeepers who got infected and were directly impacted by his dangerous behavior and arrogance. We’ve been bearing the brunt of this crisis physically and emotionally, while the president continues not to take this pandemic seriously. His administration calls us essential, but no one recognizes our hard work or pays us what we deserve.
In these painful times, I dream of having a competent and honest leader in the White House who recognizes our sacrifice. Joe Biden has promised to treat us like the essential workers we are, by giving us paid leave, hazard pay, free testing, affordable treatment and expanded unemployment.
Doing all that we can to save lives must also include voting for change.
Helen Avalos is a naturalized U.S. citizen who fled a bloody war and deep poverty in El Salvador nearly 20 years ago. For the last 14 years, this mother of three and grandmother of two living in New Carrollton, Maryland, has been working as a contracted cleaner at Walter Reed National Medical Center and is an active member of her union, 32BJ SEIU.