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Following the May 25 death of George Floyd, nurses and other healthcare providers have been taking action not only to protest the deaths of Black citizens at the hands of police, but also to draw attention to the severe knock-on effects of racism on the health of Black communities, including an inordinate rate of mortalities from heart disease, diabetes, COVID-19, and other illnesses. Braving the risks of coronavirus, tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets, nurses, who often see the fruits of social inequality at firsthand, have provided protestors with first aid as well as taking part themselves.

Nursing organizations have joined individual nurses in speaking out. American Nurses Association President Ernest J. Grant, PhD, RN, FAAN issued a moving statement, in which he remarked, “As a black man and registered nurse, I am appalled by senseless acts of violence, injustice, and systemic racism and discrimination. Even I have not been exempt from negative experiences with racism and discrimination. The Code of Ethics obligates nurses to be allies and to advocate and speak up against racism, discrimination and injustice. This is non-negotiable…. At this critical time in our nation, nurses have a responsibility to use our voices to call for change. To remain silent is to be complicit.”

“You clapped for us. We kneel for you.”

A mingling of professional training and empathy moved nurses such as Miami RN Rochelle Bradley to take a knee in remembrance of Floyd’s death. Bradley told CNN that “Kneeling here today for nine minutes and knowing that that’s how long George Floyd was on the ground with his airway compromised really bothered me as a nurse.”

For healthcare workers, the protests also reinforced their sense of unity in the era of COVID-19. In Boston, nurses who gathered to kneel in front of Brigham and Women’s Hospital carried a sign reading, “You clapped for us. We kneel for you.” One nurse interviewed, Roberta Biens, said, “I just want everybody to know they’re not alone, we’re with them and we’ll stand in front of them or behind them, wherever we need to be to support them.”

Minneapolis nurses appeared in force at the protests. One local ER nurse told the Insider, “COVID is a temporary and critical health crisis. Racism, through violence and disease, has been killing our patients since the hospital was built and will continue killing them long after COVID is gone.” And in an official statement, the Minnesota Nurses Association said, “Nurses continue to see the devastating effects of systematic racism and oppression targeting people of color in our communities. We demand justice for George Floyd and a stop to the unnecessary death of black men at the hands of those who should protect them.”

Hospitals in New York City united to stand behind the protests. The Gothamist scanned official Twitter posts and noted, “The six major hospital systems in the city–NYU Langone Health, Mount Sinai Health System, New York-Presbyterian, NYC Health + Hospitals, Northwell Health, and Montefiore Health System–have all posted publicly in support of the demonstrations…”

Weighing the Call to Civic Action Against Public Health Concerns

Medical practitioners are understandably divided about engaging in public assemblies while the coronavirus is still at large, but many believe the risk is worth taking. On June 8, World Health Organization (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “WHO fully supports equality and the global movement against racism,” but added, “As much as possible, keep at least 1 meter from others, clean your hands, cover your cough and wear a mask if you attend a protest.”

Asked by Health.com about the danger of public protests, Natalie DiCenzo, an Ob-Gyn resident in New Jersey, responded that “the risk of remaining silent and complacent in the face of racism and police violence is also deadly. I believe that with the proper precautions, these protests can be done relatively safely when it comes to COVID-19.”

Nearly 2,000 US “public health professionals, infectious diseases professionals, and community stakeholders” also expressed direct support for the national protests in a widely circulated June 4 letter (initiated by faculty from the University of Washington School of Medicine). Following a statement that “White supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19,” the letter recommended a series of safety measures to protect protestors from the virus. Among other issues it urged “that protesters not be arrested or held in confined spaces, including jails or police vans, which are some of the highest-risk areas for COVID-19 transmission, “ and that no use be made of “tear gas, smoke, or other respiratory irritants, which could increase risk for COVID-19 by making the respiratory tract more susceptible to infection…”

On Twitter, nurses participating in the protests offered their own practical suggestions. A DC pediatric nurse told attendees to bring gloves, sunglasses or goggles for eye protection, and “an extra mask. Yours will get hot and sweaty so switching it out halfway through is smart. If you have a cloth mask throw a bandana on top too…” Following participation in protests, some nurses have also taken the step of self-quarantining for two weeks.

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