The coronavirus doesn’t just ravage the body of those infected; it wreaks havoc on all those in proximity to it. It plays on the minds of those who, while not suffering from the actual disease, are caring for those who are. COVID-19's alarming infection and death rates bring with it the weight of uncertainty and the fear of unpredictability and the soft whisper of, “God, please don’t let it be me.”
While the coronavirus pandemic is a global crises, in the United States, COVID-19 seems to follow the blood flow of systemic racism; black folks get it worse, we always do.
And while the courageous healthcare workers and professionals at the frontlines of this pandemic have rightly been heralded as heroes, far too often their own struggles have gone unheard—especially those of the brave black men and women who come from our own community.
“It’s a very eerie feeling walking to the hospital. It’s quiet,” Dr. Chinyere Okpaleke, a board-certified family medicine physician in Tampa, Fla., told The Root. “Everybody’s wearing a mask. Everybody’s just really scared.”
She continued: “It kind of reflects on how everyone is...treating their patients, because they don’t want to touch them. They want to keep their distance. It’s been a struggle to still have that caring feeling with your patients and still be on alert. Like if you cough or have a fever, I’ve got to protect myself because I have a family I want to go home to. I have children. I have a husband...And I know you’re a patient and I want to care for you, but I also have to care for myself.”
Dr. Okpaleke also stressed the importance of prioritizing her self-care during this time, because while she’s an essential worker who’s invaluable to our efforts in combating COVID-19, she’s also a human being. To that end, she’s found much-needed solace in exploring activities that preserve and protect her mind as much as they do her body.
“If I can’t take care of myself, I definitely can’t take care of my patients,” she began. “I normally do workouts already, but now I’m integrating yoga and mediation [into] my daily life because this has been [an] overwhelming experience...So I know everyone is worried and everyone is scared—and rightfully so. But if we take care of ourselves mentally, I think that’s the first step.”
During this crisis, Dr. Okpaleke notes that despite a lower influx of patients—presumably due to local residents fearing medical treatment or exposure to COVID-19—she works 12-hour shifts on a “seven days on, seven days off” schedule. And while Florida continues to break records as its staggering number of coronavirus-related deaths escalate, Tampa boasts a substantial amount of “rule outs”: patients who return home after being “ruled out” from having contracted the virus.
In Philadelphia, Brianna Weeks, a clinical nurse specialist and advanced practice nurse, has had a similar experience. While her day-to-day routine remains largely unchanged, the policies put in place are now dramatically different—putting the safety of healthcare providers at significant risk.
“We are asked to prolong wearing supplies that would normally be one-time use only or usually...a limited number of hours you are allowed to wear it,” Weeks told The Root. “We’re asked on a day-to-day basis [to] conserve our personal protective equipment [PPE]...on a long term basis because the supply is just not guaranteed.”
Weeks didn’t go into detail on what those conservation methods entail, but there’ve been numerous reports of hospitals washing PPE, doctors dipping their hands in buckets of sterilizer in the absence of hand gel and thousands of healthcare providers throughout the world contracting COVID-19. While its difficult to determine if reusing PPE has exacerbated the spread of coronavirus, doing so unquestionably compromises the safety of both healthcare professionals and patients—leading to the Department of Defense receiving authorization to produce $133 million worth of N95 masks under the Defense Production Act of 1950, which gives Trump the authority to instruct private businesses to manufacture medical supplies as a means of national defense.
Weeks describes the tenor of her workplace environment as “somber,” because while cities like Wayne County, Mich., and New York City have been ravaged by this deadly pandemic, the City of Brotherly Love has yet to incur its full wrath.
“Things in Philadelphia aren’t quite as bad as in other areas,” she began. “It’s kind of the waiting game. We’re just preparing for our peak to hit...It’s been a lot of preparation, a lot of making sure that our contingency plans around pandemics are kind of succinct and our policies are ready to go and ready to roll out. And some of them we’ve actually had to put in implementation already.”
She also insists, as Dr. Okpaleke pointed out earlier, that self-care during this crisis is crucial. For her, that means eliminating social media, minimizing digesting the news, lighting candles to put her mind at ease and being mindful of the extenuating circumstances that others might be facing by extending forgiveness and grace.
“Every day I’m being super intentional about my self-care practices,” she said. “I [wake] up with a grateful heart and a grateful spirit...I have been given the tools and the purpose to go out here and to really have an impact on this current crisis. And I don’t take that lightly. But [I’m] also...being mindful of how to care for myself and care for those who are closest to me who may be impacted.”
A hospital operations manager, who spoke to The Root under the condition of anonymity, revealed that they’ve worked every single day for over a month straight due to the severity of this crisis, and that nurses at their hospital have been drafting wills in order to prepare for increased exposure to COVID-19.
“The coronavirus will forever change bedside care,” they told The Root. “We’re not refusing to care for patients, but we’ve had to change how we care for them.”
When asked if there was something specific that black people either don’t know or don’t understand about this pandemic, the operations manager suggested methods to reinforce our body’s natural defenses.
“Strengthening our immune systems through diet, exercise and vitamins could save so many more lives,” they said. “Eliminating high sodium foods like pork, managing sugar intake, eating fruits and vegetables, and of course, drinking water.”
They continued, “Vitamin C should be taken daily, along with Vitamin D, turmeric and probiotics. There are also natural herbs like sea moss and peppermint, or honey that is farmed locally. You can build an immunity to seasonal allergies, colds and other illnesses by doing cardio outdoors, but minimizing stress and getting good sleep are key. Also, mental health plays a big part in the immune system breaking down and often times black folks refuse to address mental health issues.”
Naturally, this crisis has taken a tremendous toll on the essential workers and healthcare providers tasked with preserving our health, but when asked what it is that we can do to express our gratitude by supporting them in return, the answer shouldn’t come as a surprise.
“The number one thing you can do to support people who are on the frontlines, healthcare workers, hospital nurses, respiratory therapists...is to stay home.” Weeks said. “You’ve heard a lot about flattening the curve and the number one way you could do that is by staying home so that you don’t come in contact with other people. Our health care systems are not built to be overwhelmed and to deal with the capacity that this virus can absolutely cause.”
And if you absolutely must go outside, Weeks stresses the importance of taking necessary precautions.
“If you have to go out, please wash your hands,” she said. “Please be mindful of people who come in contact with us. [Please abide by] the six-foot rule...because that is the number one way you can keep yourself safe and keep the disease from spreading.”
Of equal importance, we must all remember that COVID-19 isn’t being treated by merely modern medicine, but by fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers and loved ones with families and fears of their own.
“As a health care provider, a lot of voices are saying, ‘Well, you didn’t really sign up for this.’ But actually, I did,” Dr. Okpaleke shared. “There are doctors and nurses who are putting their lives on the line with this pandemic and have unfortunately died from this because they know at the end of the day, they wanted to save a life...And that’s something that does scare me and it scares my other fellow colleagues. But if we do what we need to do, we know we were doing it for the right reasons and that reason is to save lives.”
She continued, “This is a stressful time for everyone. I encourage you all to reach out to your loved ones, continue speaking to them, even though it is hard to not see them, but stay away from those who are high risk because you just never know...Take care of yourself. Stay healthy. Stay indoors. And we’ll see you outdoors in the next few months.”