Why nurses are in the spotlight in China

As the virus outbreak in China leads to distrust of its rulers, the rulers highlight the role of nurses. Worldwide, their professional qualities are trustworthy simply because they facilitate healing.

A nurse in protective gear talks to a patient arriving at a hospital in Wuhan in China's Hubei Province.

In a major health crisis like the virus outbreak in China, one of the first casualties can be the public’s trust in government. Leaders in Beijing are now very aware of this. Many Chinese have become fearless in criticizing the Communist Party’s response. As a result, officials have revved up a propaganda campaign to highlight those frontline workers who – as in most countries – are widely trusted: nurses.

The official Chinese press depicts nurses coping with the outbreak as courageous. “My colleagues and I are not afraid of being infected,” one nurse is quoted as saying. Or the press shows the tireless compassion of health workers. “From the expression in the nurses’ eyes, I felt their exhaustion and knew the job must be more tiring than I had expected,” one nurse reportedly said of the others. During China’s last major virus outbreak in 2002-03, the propaganda was quite explicit in commanding people to “love your nurse.”

While such tales may help cover over the ruling party’s failings, nurses are indeed special in their professional qualities. This is especially so during outbreaks of infectious diseases when supportive care is critical for a patient’s recovery. Nurses are also the largest part of the health workforce in every country.

Beyond their technical knowledge, nurses are widely seen as inherently selfless. They provide kindness and attention, which can facilitate healing. Many aim to fulfill their profession’s so-called Nightingale pledge, which calls on each nurse to “devote myself to the welfare of those committed to my care.” Florence Nightingale, the 19th -century nursing pioneer, wanted nurses to focus more on the well-being of patients than the sickness. “Apprehension, uncertainty, waiting, expectation, fear of surprise, do a patient more harm than any exertion,” she advised.

As global disasters increase – whether from climate change or epidemics – nurses are in short supply. But the trust in them is not. The latest Gallup Poll in the United States shows why. Of all professions, nurses rate the highest in honesty and ethics at 85%. That level of trust has been consistent over 18 years of polling even as trust in other professions has declined. It also is much higher than trust in doctors, clergy, and police.

The Chinese government is learning a lesson about the character traits needed to earn the people’s trust. It has sent more than 6,000 health workers, mainly nurses, into Hubei province, the center of the virus outbreak. Their work is worth highlighting. Rather than set up a digital surveillance system to track the trustworthiness of their people, Chinese leaders themselves can try to be more trustworthy.

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