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Dispatches from Digby by Shawnalynn Cromwell

The medical frontlines are being tested daily, and not only due to the overwhelming caseload of patients with COVID-19,but due to an ongoing problem of systemic racism in the health care system. It is ingrained deep in the healthcare system, affecting our frontline workers and patients of colour, and the Indigenous population.

A health care worker, no matter what their role, on the frontlines should not have to contend with systemic racism.  It is a true statement, but far from being a reality; and with the pandemic, all hands are required to be on deck.  Also, no one—I mean no human being on this planet—should ever be treated as sub-human because of their skin colour and race! A case in point is the incident in Quebec where an aboriginal woman, a wife, a mother, a daughter, died due to the ignorant racist hospital staff’s behaviours. What is sickening is they were two nurses. Instead of adhering to their oath as a medical professional to “Do no harm,” they stopped being medical professionals and became bystanders—onlookers to an avoidable death.  

Black nurse checks notes. Photo by Laura James from Pexels

On the flip side, consider a story CBC recently reported about the treatment of nurses of colour and the systemic racism that they face. The nurses of colour go to work to put in their twelve-hour shifts, and experience disrespect, abuse and flat-out racism, not only from peers and bosses but also from patients. I wonder how different the outcome would have been for the patient at the Quebec hospital if it had been two nurses of colour.  

But wait… I seriously doubt that there are even any nurses of colour working at that hospital. And if there ever were, they would not be there long before moving on.  

It is a colossal problem: nurses of colour are calling for change.  The Registered Nurses Association of Ontario set up the Black Nurses Task Force in the aftermath of magnified violence and acts of anti-black racism, including the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.  As of December, the task force sent a letter to the Association asking for race-based data to be collected. The task force will use the data to track the frequency of Black nurses exiting the field or report incidents of anti-Black racism.

It is worth noting that as recently as August 2020, according to Abe Oudshoorn in Canadian Nurse, in an opinion piece titled “The Unbearable Whiteness of Nursing”, the profession did not have accessible statistics on the percentage of the nursing workforce who are people of colour. In the CBC article, the College of Nurses of Ontario notes “work on how to collect and analyze race-based data is planned for this year.” 

Hush Naidoo on Unsplash

The mental toll this on-the-job racism takes on nurses of colour is enormous! It breaks down a person’s ability to do their jobs. Some nurses of colour switch to other departments or quit the professional altogether.  I hope that the task force put concrete and sustainable changes into place for nurses and other healthcare workers of colour. And also, an actual change in patient care for the aboriginal population.  

I, for one, would welcome the care of two competent and compassionate nurses of colour rather than the kind of treatment given by the nursing staff at the Quebec Hospital. The person that died due to neglect of care and racist taunting had no choice. The nurse of colour doing their job has no choice but to put up with the daily bouts of racism. 

With the task force, change needs to happen, or we will continue to lose some of our best frontline healthcare workers!

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Shawnalynn Cromwell is a community ambassador with Inspiring Communities’ nested initiative Turning the Tide in Digby. Shawnalynn is a writer, changemaker and active community member in Weymouth Falls. 


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