What’s your current job role?
I’m a Healthcare Assistant (HCA) in an adult high dependency unit and I was training
during the first peak of Covid-19 and worked full time on the NHS frontline caring for Covid positive service users.
What was your personal experience with Covid in a healthcare setting?
I was diagnosed with epilepsy when I was 9 years old, which is a neurological issue. I haven’t had any seizures since 2010, but I take medication as a preventative measure. However, the seizures can come back at any time. My doctor warned me that I must be extra cautious in my nursing role because I have a higher risk of catching Covid-19 due to my epilepsy, in addition, I am Asian, which also increases my risk. My doctor emphasised this information to me as soon at it became known and as such, I immediately requested a meeting with the matron of my ward area to discuss my concerns and fears about this.
Did your senior management team consist of Black or Asian staff members?
No, all members of senior management are white however, I approached the matron and gave her a brief summary about my concerns and worries. She was not receptive to my concerns and would alway say that she’s too busy to discuss the issues. It was difficult for me to get her to take my concerns seriously and my matron seemed to lack empathy for what I was going through. I just needed 5 minutes of her time so that she could support me, give solutions and understand that my life is at an increased risk from Covid because of my ethnicity, my neurological condition, and the lack of adequate PPE.
Did you raise your concerns formally?
No, but I decided to send an email to the matron as I felt this was the best way to express my concerns and potentially secure a meeting. Due to her busyness, I thought that perhaps an email correspondence might be better and easier for her. Unfortunately, my email was also ignored and I continued to be unheard. In the first 2 months, I was still being disproportionately rostered to work in the Covid-19 positive areas. I didn’t feel confident to say no to the seniors when they allocated me to work in the Covid-19 positive areas. I also agreed to the allocation because I thought that the matron was looking into the issues that I raised, and I wrongly assumed that someone would follow up my concerns and prioritise me because i’m Asian and I had raised the fact that I suffered from a neurological disorder that put me high risk.
Did you ever feel listened to?
After several weeks of asking for a meeting and sending emails, the matron eventually agreed to see me. This felt like a breakthrough and I was at last being heard. However, during our meeting, the White matron was extremely dismissive and quite rude. I talked about my fears and worries because I was frightened to go to work. What I was seeing was causing me problems with falling asleep at night. Seeing so many Black and Asian people (who look like me) contracting and dying at such a high rate from Covid-19 was petrifying.
I didn’t feel comfortable to return to the ward area until it was determined that it was safe for me to work there. The matron seemed to become defensive and offended during our meeting whenever I raised the issue of my ethnicity. After the first meeting, no risk assessment was carried out and no adjustments were suggested or made.
In my mind, the situation was not resolved, I felt vulnerable and therefore I continued to request another meeting so we could set up a plan to protect me from contracting Covid. She just kept saying that she’s busy and she told me to just go through the Covid risk assessment myself. She refused to provide me with any guidance and left me on my own. I began to feel like I was inconveniencing management when sharing my lived experiences of being Asian.
What would you have liked to have happened?
I would have preferred to work less in the positive Covid-19 areas and be provided
with appropriate PPE. The White matron literally ignored me and made me feel as if I was the problem. After several months of me pushing for a meeting, the matron eventually sent me an email stating that I should categorise myself as low risk, she linked the NHS website and stated that the NHS website doesn’t state that epilepsy puts me at risk of contracting Covid.
She was wrong.
According to the NHS website, I was clinically vulnerable due to my condition affecting my brain or nerves, and this is exactly what epilepsy is.
I felt disheartened, disappointed and unsupported. I just got on with it. I never heard from her after this. However, another member of management chose to follow up and contact me. She took 5 minutes with me over the phone to do a risk assessment with me. That’s all I was asking for.
Did you ever make a complaint about the way you were treated? No I didn't make a formal complaint, but some time later whilst working on a ward I bumped into the first White Matron who originally approached me and she invited me into her office. This was the first time I was seeing her since the issue of me requesting a risk assessment.
I knew straight away just by her attitude that she wanted to discuss the situation regarding my requests to be risk assessed. She didn’t ask how my assessment went and what the outcome was, she was defensive and said that she didn’t appreciate the tone of my email and she accused me of being unprofessional.
In a very patronising way, the Matron said that I needed to understand that the ward was very busy because there were a lot of patients and I wasn’t the only member of staff that was worried about Covid. She said that I shouldn't have expected preferential treatment. Her tone and demeanour was very rude and hostile towards me and it seemed to me that she was annoyed because I had the nerve (in her eyes) to raise the issue of my race being a factor in the risk assessment.
Were Black and Asian staff being disproportionately allocated to work in positive Covid areas?
Absolutely yes! Without a doubt. I noticed that as Covid began to increase, we had to open a 2nd and 3rd intensive care unit solely for Covid patients. We still needed to have intensive care that was opened for non-Covid patients that required 1-1 care, because my employer is a trauma centre as well. So what they did was categorise the department into 3 parts. One part of the unit was Covid-free, Red zones were Covid contaminated and in the Green zones, you still have to wear PPE, but the patient doesn’t necessarily have Covid. I noticed that anytime I’d look at the staff board to see who was allocated to which area and patient, the safer Green zones would be filled with majority White nurses. Of course, there were a few White nurses in the hot Covid zones as well, but each day it was majority Black or Filipino permanent staff and agency nurses.
Did anyone else complain about the visible ethnicity difference in allocations?
I remember I came in to work late one day, and I went to the reception area to look at the board. I overheard one of our Black nurses arguing with the white floor coordinator, who coordinates where everyone goes. The nurse said, “I’ve continuously been in this Positive Covid ward. I’m Black and I am high risk, can you give me a break and put somebody else there?” These were the words that came out of her mouth. I remember the coordinator responding back by saying, “we have many other Black nurses who don’t complain, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t use your race as an excuse or try to play the race card”. Hearing this upset me and I decided to intervene and say something because I didn’t like what she said. I told the coordinator that this agency nurse has continuously been in the Covid positive area and surely she could give her a break. This was especially because recent reports and scientific studies showed that Black and Asian people are prone to have more severe symptoms than someone who’s White. I just thought to myself that this nurse has a valid point, we have areas that aren’t filled with Covid positive patients, why can you not give some of the Black nurses a break and allocate them to the safer areas? If a particular nurse is telling you that he or she has worked too much in a particular clinical area and they’re worried because of their race, the White staff should listen to them and act on it because it’s a valid and reasonable concern. Let the nurse cover a non-Covid area, even if it’s just for one or two shifts. I don’t see why we should be labelled as difficult and labeled as trouble or people that are “using the race card”. Saying “this person doesn’t complain and they’re Brown or Black, so why are you complaining” is highly offensive and one of the most ridiculous things I’ve heard.
Do you think your ethnicity affects your promotion prospects?
Absolutely, all the time. Opportunities are limited. I applied for nurse training secondment at least 3 times over a 6 year period and each time this was refused with no reason or explanation why. I have the qualifications required and completed all the inhouse training available to me, however, I witnessed several white Healthcare assistants join the organisation after me and they were offered secondment within 7 months of joining the trust. It's soul destroying because oftentimes it's me supporting those same HCA's turned student nurses once they are on clinical placements. Also, in my place of work there are very few senior (higher than band 8) Black staff.
There are times where I’ve thought healthcare work just isn’t for me anymore. I just don’t think I can put up with it mentally. The rejection and poor treatment becomes toxic.
How has the pandemic affected mental health?
Mental health has declined, and I know White nurses whose mental health has declined as well because of the pandemic. I’m not saying that they’ve got it easy or dismissing their problems, however with Black and Asian nurses, the impact is increased because they’re not only struggling with the pandemic but also we have additional challenges. For example, the task of wearing ill-fitting PPE becomes a challenge for Black and Asian healthcare staff because most hospitals have a Eurocentric, one-size-fits-all approach and haven’t considered their different features and needs. At times, I had to improvise and use a supermarket carrier bag just to protect my hair when in contact with Covid patients because the surgical bonnets provided by my employer are too small and are made for European straight hair. We are not being treated equally or respectfully simply because of our differences. We all came into a profession that is meant to be filled with empathy, love and kindness, we take care of our patients, but as Black and Asian employees we’re lied on with false allegations, constantly micromanaged and never given any benefit of doubt when things do go wrong. Compared to White nurses, we receive the worst outcomes, and just knowing this can impact our mental health.
Do you have anyone to speak to about these issues?
I’ve spoken to Black and Asian nurses about how I feel and most say to me that they feel like leaving and the nurses that have actually left are mostly Black or Asian. Many left because they’re tired of being treated like rubbish or they’re overworked because of the pandemic, and some have actually left the sector and have decided to do something else. One nurse was Zimbabwean and she had been in the UK for some years and she said she was being treated so badly by colleagues and patients, so she actually left to go back to university to study law. She said at least with law she can defend herself if anyone makes false allegations against her. Another colleague who is mixed race, told me that she was going to use her qualifications to go into medicine because she believed she’ll be treated with a little more respect. Those were her words. I said that she’ll be a great doctor, but she shouldn’t go into
medicine with those expectations because institutionalised racism is everywhere in the UK and the same situation is likely to be in medicine too. She will find that White doctors will be prioritised over her because of their privilege. It really upset me that she wanted to do medicine because she feels that she will be looked at more seriously. No one should have to do that.
What tips would you give Black or Asian colleague facing racism at work?
Don’t give in to the voices in your head that might be saying to you that you’re too sensitive, your too soft or even stupid. If you’re feeling uncomfortable when someone has treated you a certain way or said something that you felt was racist, don’t try and bury that feeling and don't ignore it. Understanding that you are not the problem is the first step to speaking out. Joining Equality 4 Black nurses has been a great platform to express myself. Having a group of healthcare professionals that 'just get it' and understand the struggle of everyday racism has been brilliant for me. It's is a well needed support network for HCA's and Nurses that look like me. One of the key principles that I personally take from Equality 4 Black Nurses is that if we don’t speak out, there's no change and change comes from action. It’s our responsibility as Black and Asian Nurses to now stand up against racism, if not for our sake then the generations after ours. Don’t feel like you have to put up with poor treatment and being singled out and stereotyped, you are just as important as your White colleagues or your colleagues that were born in this country.
As a healthcare professional, you go to work to make a difference, improve patient outcomes and save people’s lives as well. You’re looking after people’s family members just as much as your White colleagues are. You’re making a positive difference in your patients lives, so you shouldn’t have to put up with being singled out, lied on, disbelieved or bullied based on the colour of your skin or your accent. Don’t hold back at all. Speak out.
Equality 4 Black Nurses advises Black, Asian and minority ethnic nurses to be proactive from the beginning by keeping a written record of events that happen. Written evidence is important when dealing with racism in the workplace. If you speak to management about an incident, ensure you do so via email rather than face-to-face. Please do not wait until things get bad to ask for help, Equality 4 Black Nurses is always here for you, please reach out to us immediately and we will advise you on what to do next.