By Dr. Vishnu Bisram
West Indian Americans are in the forefront fighting against Covid disease in various parts of the United States. Wherever they are settled, many West Indians are employed in the health sector. Their lives have been disrupted by the pandemic not only like the rest of America and the world but also their role in combating the virus. They have been called upon as first responders to sacrifice their health to save others – a noble act. But they are suffering a lot like other minorities who are in the front line battling to save lives. One can see them dressed up in protective gear to attend to infected patients at hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, senior centers, and the like. It is not a pretty sight. And they are doing a great job with limited resources.
The pandemic has brought to light the critical role played by West Indians and other immigrants (like Filipinos and South Asians) in the health sector of America and perhaps even Canada, UK, Holland, Germany, France, etc. similar to the role played by Surinamese and other immigrants in Holland; some Indo-Guyanese (through Surinam connection) and Dutch West Indians also make Holland their home. So many West Indians are employed in the medical or health field in what is now considered an occupational hazard in America; no one ever thought medicine would be considered a hazardous profession.
The pandemic brought out in front the importance of Indo-Guyanese, Trini and other (many West Indian and Filipino) immigrants to health care in America. They play a most essential role in medicine but were never given due credit because of their color or foreign born status. Also, the pandemic has taken its toll Guyanese and other Americans and other workers. But it also has had its toll on Indo-Guyanese and Indo-Trini (emergency health care) and other West Indian workers, many of who have been on the front lines all along since the pandemic in early February. Many Indo-Guyanese, in tens of thousands, have been working on the health (medical) sector and as home health aide workers caring for the sick and elderly. Many (lower paid) are also employed in the food industry, packing and delivering supplies, and at grocery stores. They (medical and other workers) have watched helplessly as they or co-workers fell ill, many of who never recovered. Hundreds of Guyanese (and other West Indians) died over the last ten weeks due to Covid, and news come of a Guyanese death almost daily. Other West Indians also died daily.
While no figures exist of Guyanese working in the medical profession, when I was a student doing pre-medical studies at CUNY and worked as a science researcher in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I came cross many Indo-Guyanese in the medical fields. Hundreds of West Indians from the islands were also in the medical field; CCNY, Queens College, and Hunter had nursing programs. Most Indian females at CCNY during my college days studied the sciences whiles males were in engineering with only a few in sciences. (Later for post-graduate studies in International Relations and Economics, myself and three other males were in that field; all others were in engineering and sciences). And as I visited health institutions over the decades in New York, Jersey, and Florida, I interacted with many Indo-Guyanese, Indo-Trinis and other West Indians. They are heavily employed as doctors, assistants, nurses, PAs, aides, and other positions, in hospitals, nursing homes, and health centers. No one knows how many have been or were victims of Covid.
Numbers are not really kept except by those of us who are told of it by word of mouth or read about a Guyanese victim in the media. They are over-represented as a group on the medical front line combating the pandemic. Thus, naturally, they would share a larger burden as victims of Covid-19. Some of the earliest deaths of Covid were in fact Guyanese nurses and Physician Assistants. Studies also show minorities (non-Whites) and immigrants suffered the most from Covid. And more females than males wereCovid victims in the health industry; more Guyanese females than males are employed in the sector. And besides being victims as health care workers, many Guyanese also got infected and or died working in essential services like transportation and the food industry. The transportation sector of New York employs many Guyanese. All front line workers, especially in the medical institutions, worked long hours – double shifts almost on a daily basis. My nieces working in the hospitals informed me that had to (not a choice but a requirement as ordered by the authority) put in double their hours per week.
Those employed in essential services, while not falling below the federal poverty line of about $30K annually except for those in lower paid jobs, (medical workers earn in excess of $60K) have children or families and siblings at home, to whom they (could have) brought the virus. Not surprisingly, many get infected. Thus, the infection rate among Indo-Guyanese and other medical workers is very high although there are no official figures. Aside from this writer, hardly anyone studies or writes about the Guyanese American community.
In conversations, Guyanese front line workers and some who are/were even victims themselves relate experience with Covid patients – dry cough, chest pain, body ache, high fever, headache, backache, other ache, stifling, inability to breathe. There is really no cure – self cure, heal on your own with medication given for flu-like symptoms. Some were/are placed on ventilators to help with breathing; few recover. Those with underlying medical issues are primary victims.
Staff at nursing homes and health centers complained their health is exposed without much protection. They complain they lacked the right and enough personal protective equipment (PPE) including face-masks, gloves, shields, etc. They are asked to do a job with limited resources. No wonder, many lost their lives or were stricken by the disease. So they have to be extra careful about protection – putting on double masks, gloves, shields (when they can get them), and PPE. They are covered from head to toe. Initially, they reused protective gears because of shortages. But now, supplies are more available and they avoid reusing gears that could have been infected compromising their health and that of patients. For those working on the front lines, when they come home, they had to follow protocols to protect their families. But there are slip ups and family members become infected.
The Indo-Guyanese, Indo-Trini and other West Indian communities have contributed significantly to protect and save lives in America. They deserve the gratitude of the West Indian community in America and of the American people for being on the front lines risking their lives to save others. They were attacked in the past as being foreigners,. Now they must be praised for being saviors of Americans’ health.
The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.