COVID-19RaceRadical Self Care

who’ll be saved if black women’s symptoms are ignored?

March 27, 2020
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The coronavirus pandemic has brought the insufficiencies of our health care infrastructure on full display. And, as the pandemic continues to unfold, we are finding out that the system we know is not only ultra-expensive, but absurdly inefficient and under-equipped to do the job we need it do.

As hospitals report a scarcity of medical supplies and protective equipment, some are arguing that a conventional response to a patient whose heart or breathing stops might be too great a risk. All doctors and nurses take an oath to take those risks, but the dwindling of medical personnel has left hospitals perilously under-staffed. According to The Washington Post, hospitals battling the pandemic are already being forced to re-calculate the “save at all costs” approach whether to resuscitate dying patients or risk exposing doctors and nurses to COVID-19.

“We are now on crisis footing,” said Lewis Kaplan, president of the Society of Critical Care Medicine and a University of Pennsylvania surgeon. “What you take as first-come, first-served, no-holds-barred, everything-that-is-available-should-be-applied medicine is not where we are. We are now facing some difficult choices in how we apply medical resources — including staff.”

As Ariana Eunjung Cha reports, when a person goes into cardiopulmonary arrest — their heart or lungs stop working — it’s typical for all available personnel to appear on site. This could mean anywhere from a handful to a dozen people rushing to perform life-saving measures, which can expose them to dangerous multiple bodily fluids in a situation where the patient will most likely die regardless.

The debate over who gets treatment for COVID-19 and when they get it, doesn’t stop at performing the most extreme life-saving measures on highly contagious patients who are unlikely to survive in the long-run.

Even outside of a global pandemic, racism in health care both historically and well into today has had catastrophic effects on Black and brown people, especially Black women. In the United States, we are in the midst of a maternal health crisis already. Black women are three to four times more likely to die during pregnancy/delivery than white women. Additionally, Black women have a preterm birth rate that is 50 percent higher than that of white women. While there are many factors that weigh into these statistics, like inadequate access to health care, we see a pattern of Black mothers being ignored by medical staff when they attempt to voice concerns.

In the last few years, both Beyoncé and Serena Williams spoke publicly about their complicated, life-threatening deliveries. And how they were patronized by doctors and nurses who didn’t take their pain and concerns seriously. Even more recently, we reported on Charles Johnson who is suing Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles for the death of his wife, Kira, soon after a scheduled C-section. When Johnson attempted to alert the hospital staff that blood was seeping into his wife’s catheter, he was told that Kira’s life ” is not a priority right now.”

We are seeing this same type of deprioritization of Black COVID-19 patients. As the rate of infections rapidly increases, we are hearing more and more stories about women, again, particularly Black women, exhibiting key symptoms of the Coronavirus only to be refused tests and sent home with a prescription for an inhaler and some Tylenol. It isn’t until people like Rana Zoe Mungin, a 30-year-old social studies teacher in Brooklyn who made several hospital visits and an ambulance call, stops breathing that she was taken seriously enough to receive aggressive treatment. Now, fighting for her life, Mungin’s is on a ventilator, just days after a paramedic downplayed her symptoms as an asthma attack.

This implicit bias of anti-Blackness extends well outside the United State, of course. In London, 36-year-old Kayla Williams died one day after calling 999, fearing that she was experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. Suffering from a dry cough, high fever, chest and stomach pains, the paramedics responding to her call ultimately told Williams to treat those symptoms with “self-care”.

This information is undoubtedly alarming. It’s okay to be scared; I’m scared. As a person with severe asthma, I am in self-isolation in Atlanta having fled New York City almost two weeks ago. Together, we are going to go through this and it will be transformative for all of us. This information and the deluge of Coronavirus news doesn’t have to debilitate us completely.