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Anna Maria Ruiz is all too aware of the human toll of the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe. As a critical care nurse who has treated patients in their darkest hours, she fears the possibility of being outnumbered by severe cases, running out of personal protective equipment, and getting sick herself.
But Ruiz, who is Afro-Latina, lives in fear of something else, too: racism, discrimination, and violence against black Americans.
The police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, both unarmed black people, have ignited protests across the nation that are exploding in size and number by the day. Weeks of social distancing had finally led to a decline in cases for Ruiz to treat at her hospital in central Texas, but when a demonstration sprung up in downtown Austin last weekend, she felt compelled to be there — despite what she knew was the very real threat of the coronavirus spreading further as a result.
“I just feel like it’s too important to not show up for,” the 27-year-old told BuzzFeed News. “I feel like it’s about me fighting for my rights, my partner’s rights, my father’s rights, my brother’s rights, my friends’ rights. It’s everybody’s fight to me.”
Doctors, nurses, residents, medical students, and others in the medical field are just some of the thousands of protesters flooding town squares and downtowns. To some, their participation may seem controversial or hypocritical. In interviews with BuzzFeed News, a half-dozen health care providers who attended recent events all said they were deeply concerned about the pandemic, which has killed more than 100,000 Americans.
And they, like other health experts, believe that the crowds will likely spread the virus, especially when police use tear gas and conduct mass arrests. A surge in coronavirus cases will likely be hitting their hospitals in the coming weeks.
But while the decision to attend was tough for some, they all said they were deeply distraught by the racial inequality that runs through seemingly every facet of American life — from the economy to education to the pandemic itself, where black people are dying at higher rates. They said they see themselves as advocates for patients, not just inside the hospital but outside of it as well. Police brutality and systemic inequality are so oppressive, they said, as to leave them no choice but to publicly take a stand.
Those forces, they noted, are also a public health crisis.
As Dr. Jessica Edwards, a family medicine physician in New Braunfels, Texas, put it: “I’m an African American first before I’m a physician.”
All the health care workers interviewed said that they wore masks, tried to keep a distance from other protesters, and felt that the vast majority of people around them were doing the same. Several also came prepared to serve as medics in the event of police officers unleashing tear gas, tasers, flash grenades, pepper spray, and rubber bullets on crowds.
Earlier this spring, a smaller group of people gathered across the country to protest — in this case, against the stay-at-home-orders that have helped stem the transmission of the virus, but have also paralyzed businesses and driven historic numbers of Americans out of work. Groups of protesters flooded statehouses, some of them armed, and were criticized for potentially and needlessly spreading the virus as a result.
Should the same criticisms apply to the current protests? To the nurses and doctors interviewed for this article, the difference boiled down to a cause that is more widespread and fundamental, even existential.
“I am incredibly sympathetic to the ways [the shutdown] impacts my fellow Americans,” said Dr. Yasmin Rawlins, a first-year psychiatry resident in Southern California. “However, I will say that I do feel that I agree with the people who say, ‘If it’s your job or your life, it should be your life that you pick.’ And I think that’s what Black Lives Matter is doing — they’re picking life.”
Data shows that in the US, black people have shorter life expectancies than white people, she noted. “It’s not just inherently unjust. We’re fighting for our right to live, to just exist, to survive in this society.”
Below are the doctors and nurses in their own words. Their comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Anna Maria Ruiz
Location: Austin, Texas
Job: Registered nurse at HCA Healthcare
On the killing of George Floyd: “I don’t know what hits me so hard about this case, and everyone else too. This just seems to be the final straw for a lot of people. And I think it’s just something very different about watching a man slowly die on video — it’s not something that people see every day. … It’s horrific to watch. It’s something I feel like no human being should see. And then you take it further: that could have been my dad or my uncle or my brother or me.”
On her protest sign (pictured above): “When I’m in a patient’s room, [patients say] I’m great, I’m the best nurse ever, whatever they want to say. But would you feel this way about me as a person if I wasn’t the one taking care of you, if your life wasn’t in my hands right now? If we were on the street, would you treat me with the same respect if I had on jeans and a T-shirt? That is a real question that I have to ask myself every time I’m in a patient’s room, sadly. … If I am a great person in scrubs, I’m a great person outside of scrubs. I shouldn’t have to live in two different worlds divided only by my uniform.”
On safety: “I didn’t see one person out there without a mask — there are people out there handing out hand sanitizer and extra masks. There are people out there really trying to preserve the health of other people, but they understood that this was, again, necessary. It’s a really powerful thing to watch from a distance but also to be in the midst of it.”
“If I am a great person in scrubs, I’m a great person outside of scrubs. I shouldn’t have to live in two different worlds divided only by my uniform.”
Location: Fort Myers, Florida
Job: Registered nurse at a hospital
For the last few months, Sarah has been working nonstop on a COVID patient unit in her hospital. She had no hesitation about going to a peaceful protest this weekend, where she and a crowd of others in masks stood in silence for eight minutes, the amount of time that police officer Derek Chauvin pushed his knee on George Floyd’s neck.
Sarah, who declined to share her last name for security reasons, has Dominican heritage, but says her light skin makes her “the whitest person in my family.” That difference, she says, makes her aware of her privilege to freely go about life and stand up for those who cannot.
On why she chose to protest: “Being a registered nurse, I felt I had a duty to my community, not only to care for them in the hospital setting, but also to recognize health disparities and racism and microaggressions and this kind of stress of seeing your people die, seeing people that look like you being murdered by police, constantly, and see the brutality they’re treated with.”
What do you think of the likely possibility that COVID-19 cases will surge as a result of the protests? “I’m out there, and I see the pain of what people are going through and I think that people need to express that and let it out because you can’t just cope with that, internalizing it.
“Demanding justice is necessary and we’re able to protect our protesters as best as we can through the use of masks. But of course, you can’t control a pandemic and how people become exposed. It’s important not to gaslight the black experience and blame them for being exposed to COVID through expressing that pain and demanding justice. It’s not my place to judge, it’s not my place especially as a nurse to judge, and I’m going to treat my patients the way I normally would with respect and empathy, regardless of where they come from, regardless of why they got sick.
“The funny thing is that there’s people who are consciously leaving their house without masks, going to Publix, going to Target, going all over the place and intentionally pretending COVID is not happening and exposing themselves and then coming to our ERs. And I’m going to treat them exactly the same. People are making decisions for their own health. And I think for a lot of people right now, there is no choice other than seeking justice for their communities. Because they just cannot stand for another murder and neither can I.”
Dr. Yasmin Rawlins
Location: Los Angeles, California
Job: First-year resident in psychiatry
Rawlins has been studying racial and ethnic disparities in health care since she was an undergraduate at Harvard in 2012, when she first marched in protest of the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin. Historically, she notes, black communities have been wary of the medical establishment, and with good reason: They’ve been subjected to experimentation and unequal treatment. “That, in the middle of a pandemic, is just cause for trains colliding, in a sense,” she said. Over the last week, Rawlins, who is black, started DOCS 4 POC, a group for physicians dedicated to racial justice.
On the differences between these protests and the recent protests to reopen the economy: “I’d say the concept of protesting during this pandemic is inherently dangerous. And when you weigh the pros versus cons of whether to protest, I would argue that if you feel that balance tips in favor of protesting, it depends on the cause you’re protesting for. I think that the purpose of the protest is inherently linked to your decision, weighing all of the risks and benefits of whether or not you protest. So the differences that I see between Black Lives Matter protests and the protests to reopen the economy are, again, purpose and intention.
“It’s not that the idea of reopening the economy is problematic. I think a lot of public health experts have said there are ways to reopen the economy safely but they must be done carefully and thoughtfully … From my understanding, from the signs I saw on the news, people wanted to open the economy now regardless of the consequences. … That doesn’t make sense to me. On the flip side, the Black Lives Matter movement is arguing for black communities who were not only experiencing incredible trauma and inequality at baseline before all this started, but also during the pandemic.”
Dr. Danny Kim
Location: Los Angeles, California
Job: Third-year family medicine resident at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center
Last weekend, Kim and his partner showed up to a protest with first aid kits, masks, and other gear that showed they were street medics. They turned out to need all of it. Kim treated protesters who were shot in the torso with rubber bullets fired by the police. And his partner was hit by a ricocheted rubber bullet, too, though not harmed.
The coronavirus is a real health threat, Kim said, but so is violence inflicted by law enforcement.
On protesting: “I’m Korean American, I haven’t been subject to this kind of violence. I’ve had the privilege of that. But for my black brothers and sisters, for my partner, who’s Afro-Latina, this is every day, this is reality, this is family. Everyone I talk to can see they have a loved one who could have been George Floyd, could’ve been Trayvon Martin, could’ve been Tamir Rice. It’s a reckoning and all of us need to step up.”
“I think everyone’s making personal decisions — how much they want to avoid the coronavirus, versus protest against this virus of white supremacy and racism.”
On the coronavirus’s health risks: “First off, I’ll say protests are happening outdoors and people are wearing masks and people are wearing stuff on top of it. That is decreasing the risk of transmission, just thinking about it at the very level of the virus. But certainly people are going to be out, that’s going to increase the risk of transmission. But I think everyone’s making personal decisions — how much they want to avoid the coronavirus, versus protest against this virus of white supremacy and racism that’s really deeply embedded in our criminal justice system.”
If the protests help spark a new wave of infections in a few weeks, would that change your view of their value? “I think it wouldn’t change my view, but certainly it would qualify it. I would say that right now, I wouldn’t recommend if you had a chronic health condition, if you are of an older age, if you’re just more vulnerable to the damaging, inflammatory impacts of the coronavirus … don’t come out to the protests. But I think everyone’s gotta make their own decisions about that. The folks who are coming out, definitely need to be careful on what happens when they go home. And let’s not forget, a lot of people are getting arrested and going into the jails where they’re not doing a good job of controlling the virus. So maybe people aren’t going to get it from the protests, maybe people are going to get it from getting arrested and being detained. I don’t think there’s a right answer here.”
Dr. Jessica Edwards
Location: New Braunfels, Texas
Job: Family medicine physician and president of the Committee of Interns and Residents, a union representing interns, residents, and fellows
Edwards runs her own private practice in her small town in Texas, where she says she’s one of just three or four black physicians. The urgency of the moment has drawn her in recent days to her local town square, where a few dozen people have been gathering.
Her advice to health care providers considering whether to protest: “It depends on what this means to you. For me, I’m a mother to a black son. I feel like I have no choice. I feel like his life matters more to me, and his ability to be an American without worrying or fearing for his life, dying at the hands of police, matters way more to me. I would lay down my life for my child, right? For me, I feel like the stakes are much higher.
“Look at your city, see if you have allies, make sure you’re not out there completely by yourself… It’s identifying that and then when it’s a good time for you, if you’re already around a bunch of sick people in hospitals, it may not be your fight to fight, but you can support in other ways if you can’t physically be out at the protests: Donating to action PACs, having uncomfortable conversations with friends and loved ones, speaking out against injustices and racial bigotry that you hear from friends and loved ones.”
“I’m a mother to a black son. I feel like I have no choice.”
Dr. Hannah Janeway
Location: Los Angeles
Job: Emergency medicine physician, University of California at Los Angeles
Janeway often wears her white coat to protests on purpose: as a white doctor, she says, she can provide a protective buffer against the police. “Sometimes it gives them pause to maybe shooting us with rubber bullets,” she said.
On the health risks of protesting: “Obviously that is an increased risk, but I think we’re at a point in history where you have to decide how much risk you’re willing to take. As a person who has quite a lot of privilege, and I’m young and healthy, I felt like this was kind of a no-brainer. There are all these people out there — even people who are older than me, who don’t necessarily have health insurance — and they’re out there risking their own health in the name of trying to really call attention to this issue that is devastating an entire race and our country and other minority races as well. It kind of feels like this just keeps happening again and again and again and there’s no justice. At some point, there has to be some sort of a big protest and a big outpouring of support for that in order for change to be created.
“There’s absolutely going to be cases of COVID that come from these events. I have no doubt of that. I do think there’s going to be a spike. I think that’s really, really unfortunate. It’s sad to me that an entire group of people have to go out in the street and continue to protest day after day after day to fight for something that should not be an issue in our country today. People shouldn’t have to be on the streets asking for basic justice. People shouldn’t have to be on the streets asking to not get killed in daylight by a police officer for absolutely no reason. That shouldn’t be something that we are still talking about today in 2020. But it is.”