/White coats and black lives: Health care workers say racism is a pandemic too

White coats and black lives: Health care workers say racism is a pandemic too

In San Francisco, Dr. Maura Jones, a doctor at one of the city’s largest hospitals located just 15 minutes from the Golden Gate bridge–the site of a massive protest, sees the effects of the pandemic.

When her hospital, the University of California-San Francisco, gave doctors of color in her department a day off earlier this month to reflect, grieve and use their time in the best way that they felt, Jones went out with many of her colleagues to join protests against systemic racism and police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death while in police custody.

“Indescribable,” Jones said. “I felt hopeful in knowing that so many people felt strongly about this issue to come out and have their voices heard in a pandemic no less.”

Jones understands the threat of the coronavirus pandemic but feels the threat of racism to her family is greater.

“I would argue that, yeah I’m a doctor and I encourage you to social distance and I care about coronavirus and I know that it’s a real threat, but racism is, to me to my family, the bigger threat right now and it has been for hundreds of years,” she said.

An ABC News investigation found that black people were arrested at a rate that was five times higher than white people in 2018, after accounting for the demographics of the cities and counties those police departments serve. The investigation also found that In 250 jurisdictions, black people were also 10 times more likely to be arrested than white people.

The protests against the disparate ways in which blacks are treated and impacted by law enforcement also come at a time where the coronavirus pandemic is disproportionately affecting communities of color across the country.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report from April highlighted 33% of hospitalized coronavirus patients are black, compared to 18% of the residents in surrounding areas.

African Americans and Latinos are also more likely to know someone who has died of coronavirus disproportionately as well. In a recent ABC News/Ipsos poll, 30% of black adults and 26% of Latino adults in the country say they know a victim of the coronavirus, who died either from the disease or from complications related to the virus. Relatively that number for white adults it is 10%.

In the midst of staggering statistics, health care workers across the country are hitting the streets in solidarity to protest–some right after their shifts, still donned in their scrubs and personal protective equipment.

Yvette Courts, a mother and a health care worker at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, joined other doctors and nurses at the protest one recent evening, taking a knee in solidarity with the movement. Courts told ABC News, at the protest, that her son has a right to grow up.

“He has a right to grow up, you know? He’s okay. This world that we live in is not as cruel and as bad as everybody makes it. I want to live his dreams,” Courts said.

When Dr. Jasmine Johnson, a maternal-fetal medicine fellow in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, participated in a protest organized by the University of North Carolina Student National Medical Association, where approximately 500 health care workers were in attendance, she wore a mask, her white coat and held up a sign that read “Racism is a pandemic too!”

She feels that the role of the same injustices with police brutality caused by systematic racism are also present in the public health arena.

“I definitely think it’s connected. We’re seeing it in pregnancy outcomes and unfortunately seeing it with coronavirus. I think that it took this pandemic for the world to pay attention but this is something that we’ve been trying to fight for and call attention to for a long time,” Johnson said.

Johnson sees first hand a glaring disparity for women that look like her; the mortality rates for black women during childbirth. According to the CDC, pregnancy-related deaths per 100,000 live births, black women older than 30 was four to five times as high as it was for white women over 30.

“I’m the only black woman in the Maternal Fetal Medicine Division. So for me, especially in a place where almost 30% of our patients are black, I feel the weight of making sure that the issues of my people are known,” said Johnson.

Johnson described the protests as a great morale booster for her. As a mother of two black children, Johnson was worried about what the future would look like for them. This moment, around a large group of people marching for one cause, was invigorating for her.

“I would say for me, in the personal aspect of being there, it really helped me. As a mother to black children, I started to get really discouraged about the fate of the things in our nation. Seeing all of those people come together for this cause and having the support of the community as we march downtown Durham, it was invigorating for me to feel like things could be changing for the better.”

Johnson said this moment feels different from recent protests before and referenced the change in the national conversation, conversations amongst her peers while coupled with the coronavirus pandemic. This moment in time, she said, has a different feel than nearly six years ago with the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo. by police. Johnson said that tragedy occurred during her first year of residency at UNC; she said she felt alone then, but now, not as much.

“When Michael Brown died in Ferguson, that was my first year here and I remember overhearing a patient tell another resident ‘They’re always rioting,’ and we didn’t talk about it as a department,” she said. “We didn’t talk about it amongst each other and that makes you feel so isolated and alone. I don’t feel alone right now.”