I joined Solent Trust at the end of March – a surreal time where I moved from London to an Airbnb in Southampton and then (with the help of an amazing letting agent) quickly found a flat next to hers in Shirley; this was one of the only two I could visit prior to everything closing. My adolescent son was home-schooling (I am a single mother) and I was joining a new team.
I was used to being adaptable after a long career in emergency healthcare in sub-Saharan Africa - I just got on with it and understood the fear I could see in my colleagues’ eyes. What was known of Covid-19 did not seem particularly threatening to immunocompetent children and adults, so I hoped we could safely care for the most at-risk population in the best way possible, whilst taking a necessary learning curve into account. What we did not know of Covid-19 did not worry me either; we would find out and respond to that knowledge in due time as was necessary with any other new disease. I had felt so much more vulnerable during the Ebola epidemic in Guinea.
I never anticipated the level of panic I would witness from most governments and citizens throughout the world, including those in Africa with very few deaths from Covid-19. I was very relieved not to feel coerced by the UK government, which was a striking difference from what my siblings in Italy and eldest son in France experienced.
Out of the very many positions held during my career I felt it extraordinary to land in a GP practice run by an NHS Trust at that very time - I felt safe. The many issues faced by healthcare workers during infectious disease epidemics, particularly relating to logistics (PPE and IT to name a few), could never be faced in GP surgeries as swiftly as hospitals and Trusts. I felt blessed to be a salaried GP in a practice run by a Trust; a role that I had previously seen as the only option for a generalist in a developed country who craved equalitarian relationships with colleagues, and with no interest in becoming the businesswoman necessary in GP partnerships.
Therefore, I felt deeply shaken when news slowly emerged of “BAME” (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic - i.e non-white communities) experiencing higher death rates from Covid-19 in the US and in the UK; two countries where BAME communities are probably more represented and have more opportunities to work in the healthcare sector than in other countries. I was devastated by this because there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that these excess deaths were a direct consequence of racism. It wasn’t Covid-19 that was responsible for BAME excess deaths, it was the exposure of BAME staff and the way BAME patients are treated when sick in predominantly white healthcare countries. I knew this as a black patient and as black GP.
My son and I took the train to London to protest in front of Parliament Square on 6th June. I screamed out loud, probably for the very first time, a lifetime of anger and pain for unjust treatment, and lost my voice in the process. An incredible BAME Zoom meeting happened the week after and I discovered unconventionally wise, sensitive leadership at the very top of the Trust; it meant a huge amount to me and helped confront injustices in my workplace like never before.
I know how hard discussions on racism are; as a mixed-race child I started these in a family who never wanted to talk about it. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is also helping this distressing family discussion. Racism is a habit and the first step in addressing a habit is to painfully realise its existence, and that it kills.