A demonstration in Hamburg, Germany, to protest against the recent killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, USA. File picture: Markus Scholz/dpa via AP
A demonstration in Hamburg, Germany, to protest against the recent killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, USA. File picture: Markus Scholz/dpa via AP

Black healthcare workers in US do double duty fighting Covid-19 and racism

By Brendan Kiley/The Seattle Times Time of article published Jun 10, 2020

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Seattle - Before the pepper spray, before the pandemonium and the torched police cars that would light up media reports the next morning, Hazzaunah Underwood was in central Seattle, peacefully protesting - and exhausted.

The nurse and single mother of four was worn out from several night shifts in the emergency department, on the front lines of fighting the novel coronavirus, but took the trip from her home in Mukilteo, Washington state, to Seattle for the May 30 protest against police violence and embedded American racism.

It started peacefully but ended in flash bangs and shattered storefront windows - one of many protests across the country, then the world, sparked by the video showing the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis.

For Underwood, it was supposed to be a day of recuperation from her two emergency-room jobs, one in Edmonds and one in Bellevue, both near Seattle. She needed rest, and maybe a hike with the kids.

But she felt compelled to join the protest downtown, then other marches in days to come - despite the pandemic and its stay-home orders, and despite her own exhaustion.

"For me as an African American woman, police brutality has been my corona since before corona showed its face," she said. "I have a 7-year-old son. I want him to be able to grow up, to walk the street, for me not to be fearful every time he leaves the house that he won't come back."

Her voice broke into tears. "It's not OK," she said. "So when do you speak? When do you stand up?"

For the past few weeks, the United States has been wrestling through two tough conversations with itself about two pandemics - though the volume got turned way up on the one about racism - and health care workers, particularly those of colour, are living in the middle of both.

"Racism is the biggest public health crisis of our time," said Dr Nathan Colon (pronounced "cologne"), a black surgeon at the University of Washington who attended a June 6 demonstration with thousands of health care workers and their supporters, which marched from Harborview Medical Center down First Hill to City Hall. (Underwood was at that one, too.) "As health care providers, we take care of people."

But how do they navigate the tension between those two crises? To take care of people by urging them to "Stay Home, Stay Safe," as Washington state governor Jay Inslee dubbed his March 23 social distancing order, or to wade into the streets for political action?

"I felt the risk was bigger not to go," said Tupamara "Tupi" Maestas, an OB/GYN nurse from South Seattle. "By not going, I was risking the lives of the people I care about, people of colour who are harassed and afraid to call the police, even for assistance. Both my parents came with me. We felt the benefit outweighed the risks for having our voices heard." (Maestas' mother is a public health nurse; her father, Juan Bocanegra, is a longtime organizer of Seattle's annual May Day immigrants' rights march.)

For Underwood, and other working parents like her, the negotiation between being on the front lines of coronavirus and the front lines of activism is complicated by even starker, more immediate factors: the needs of her children, and the number of hours in the day. Lately, because of the stay-home orders, she's not only a single mother and a nurse in the middle of a pandemic - she's a teacher, too.

"I'd be exhausted, mentally and physically at work, seeing the sickness, seeing the death, literally counting the bodies in the morgue to see if another one can fit," she said.

Then she goes home.

"You have to keep it together, not only at work for people looking to you for direction, but for your children," she said. "I've got to pretend I didn't just see what I saw at work, but put on my mom face and my teacher face. So the question is: 'When do I sleep?'"

Underwood is quick to credit the people helping her, including nearby siblings and an overnight babysitter who looks after the children during nursing shifts, and has been staying in the mornings to help with schoolwork.

But Underwood says that, despite these demands, the protests have provided an unexpected surge of energy - and hope.

After years, and generations, of talking and marching about racism, after so many videos and photographs of people of colour being killed by white police officers or white vigilantes, she feels like the United States has hit a mysterious moment of critical mass.

"I don't know how to explain it," she said. "I feel like this time is different. I feel like people are a little more open-minded, finally willing to listen."

Other health care workers think so, too. Some suspect it's because the video of George Floyd's killing was so graphic.

"It took irrefutable proof," Nhi Tan, a nephrologist at the University of Washington, said at the June 6 medical workers' march. "The perfect video, the perfect camera angle, the perfect light for America to see what's going on."

Ugbad Hassan, a Somali immigrant who grew up in South Seattle and works as a mental health provider at emergency rooms around the city, suspects the coronavirus era itself - and the way it's narrowed the menu of potential distractions - has contributed to this diverse, amplified protest of American racism.

"It's been strange and I don't know what changed," she said. "Maybe the fact that we're in a pandemic made them finally sit with their feelings about how wrong these things have been."

Hassan has been part of the Black Lives Matter movement since 2012, and said those efforts are typically marshalled by "brown and black bodies."

But the past few weeks, white colleagues have written to apologize for not being more involved in anti-racist work over the years, and white people are not only showing up at demonstrations, but offering their bodies as shields between Hassan and the police.

That, she said, is a definite first.

"It's all emotionally exhausting but amazing to see," she said. "People are showing up in numbers, but I hope it's not just a trend. I hope people really mean it, and follow up with voting, being aware enough to follow the movement - that it's not just them checking off a box."

Underwood said the size of the June 6 medical workers' march, and the white colleagues who showed up, were a tremendous boost.

"My feeling of hope - if it was a balloon, it inflated tenfold," she said. "Often you go into a workplace as a woman of colour and you don't know who's got your back. I've lived that life all 13 years of being a nurse. But seeing white coats for Black lives, which became a hashtag, seeing people in unity saying: 'I see you, I hear you, I stand in solidarity with you.' That means so much."

tca/dpa

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