AAPI Medical Personnel in the Fight Against COVID-19
The alarm rings. Another day in the hospital working a 12 hour shift in a 7 day work week. Another day busy saving lives and helping the sick. Another day winning some fights, and losing others.
Standing at the vanguard of a global battle against the COVID-19 virus, healthcare workers everywhere face a new set of challenges each day. During this time, however, it would be a good idea to discuss the issues and struggles that Asian American and Pacific Islander medical personnel face on a daily basis. Trying to find equilibrium when you hear insults about your appearances in one ear and laudatory gratitude in another, navigating a world in which cultural traditions are disrupted, and stretching yourself to meet various social and spiritual expectations convalesce into a unique set of obstacles for the AAPI community, and their perseverance in the face of adversity during a global pandemic is truly exceptional.
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are at the forefront of the current pandemic in the healthcare sector. Despite making up around 6% of the U.S. population, data from 2018 shows that the AAPI community makes up 17.2% of active physicians. Resultantly, a disproportionate amount of healthcare workers on the front lines are members of the AAPI community. As such a big part of the U.S. medical personnel and staff in community, there are specific obstacles during this pandemic that AAPI physicians and nurses have to rise above in order to succeed on a daily basis.
One such example is the mental conflict that has emerged in the minds of East Asian doctors in the U.S, as verbal and physical abuse on the basis of ethnicity merge with praise for healthcare workers. Dr. Chen Fu describes an incident in a subway: “I got stopped in the subway and one of the passengers started screaming racial slurs at me. I was dressed in scrubs and it was pretty clear that I was on my way to the hospital.” The notion of a “Chinese virus” perpetuated through various media sources has led to an unacceptable level of fear and paranoia, boiling over into hate and blame. East Asians, primarily, have become victims of hate surrounding the situation, as ignorance and misunderstanding abound. However, the great swell of appreciation for health care workers puts those who are otherwise for their race at an odd position. Fear of facing retaliation in public, or even by patients who are receiving treatment, coupled with simultaneous gratitude for their work is extremely difficult to reconcile. Feeling like the appreciation directed towards all healthcare workers isn’t meant for you as an Asian American is disheartening, but the dedication that AAPI doctors have to their jobs and communities they serve in spite of this disconnect is inspiring.
Apart from overt racism, Asian American and Pacific Islander medical staff have to relinquish some traditions and aspects of their culture for the sake of their patients’ and their own safety. Dr. Jordan Lee, a Hawaiian medical practitioner who practiced Reiki healing and healing touch alongside Western medicinal practices, demonstrates how the lack of contact and physical interactions, such as hugs and honi honi, or kissing one another on the cheeks as a greeting, has resulted in distress for both patient and doctor. In an interview with NBC, he says: “The loss of human touch is probably the hardest thing.” Traditions of having elders present for medical and healing purposes have been interrupted, as those who are elderly are at higher risk for a more severe infection. Distancing measures, while extremely important during this time, have also placed a strain mainly on Pacific Islander doctors and nurses, as human relations and ties to regional culture become a large part of their profession.
Such cultural disturbance for the sake of the patients is becoming a large part of the AAPI healthcare worker experience. 2 Sikh doctors recently shaved their beards in order to wear N95 masks, despite their religious belief that cutting your hair is unacceptable. A large part of the Hindu faith is the emphasis of seva, or the selfless service of one’s community, and the uphill struggle and pervasive death that doctors see on a daily basis can often mean a sense of failure to properly and successfully serve their community. Religious and cultural beliefs are a large part of one’s daily experience, and this is especially true for the AAPI community in the healthcare sector. Whether it is exchanging cultural traditions for the sake of patient safety, or the constant striving to meet religious doctrines of service, the experiences of AAPI healthcare workers give an insight as to the courage and endurance needed to be successful in their field.
Even in their personal lives, Asian American and Pacific Islander medical staff have to surpass yet another set of obstacles. Women in the healthcare sector have to fulfill expected domestic obligations in addition to hectic and stressful work days. Conservative Asian cultural norms and gender roles dictate that the fundamental obligation of women is to their home, so taking care of any children as well as preparing food after a 12 hour shift becomes an unreasonable task. Additionally, anxiety over exposure to the children of the household becomes a large source of stress for the AAPI women who are their primary caretakers. Additionally, vast social networks with certain social norms in Asian American and Pacific Islander groups results in large numbers of family friends and relatives calling Asian American doctors, asking about symptoms and treatment over the phone. From being at the clinic or hospital, to enduring various struggles during the personal side of life, AAPI doctors and nurses are rising to the occasion in the face of adversity from all angles.
Being a member of the AAPI community and being a healthcare worker has its own unique troubles, but we celebrate those who are putting their life and safety on the line as well as surpassing cultural and social barriers in order to serve those in their communities during this AAPI heritage month.
Figure 18. Percentage of all active physicians by race/ethnicity, 2018
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This article has been published as part of a series of weekly writings by OCA Greater Phoenix’s interns for AAPI Heritage Month 2020