I hear my mother pull up in the driveway. It’s 10:30 a.m. — almost three hours after her shift at the hospital is supposed to end. She heads straight to the basement, stripping her scrubs off in the laundry room and loading a cycle into the rickety washer before jumping in the shower. She emerges some 20 minutes later, grinning at us despite the bags under her eyes. Another day at work — but, another day still alive.
This has been the norm in my household for over a year now. My parents, both of whom work as nurses, have been working relentlessly in the midst of a global pandemic. And they are not alone: the COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the Filipino American community, which comprises the largest population of immigrant nurses. Though Filipinos only make up 4% of the nursing workforce, they comprised over a third of total nursing deaths in American hospitals. Health disparities are partly to blame; obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes occur at higher rates. Another factor is the nature of the nursing profession; Filipinos are overrepresented in positions closer to frontline settings that place them in direct contact with patients: in the emergency room, for example, or in nursing homes (which have particularly high rates of COVID-19 cases).
What is often overlooked is why Filipinos work — and work hard — as nurses. The history of nursing migration is wrapped up in histories of colonialism. Following World War II, the United States faced a critical shortage of nurses. The Philippines quickly became a major supplier of this labor — and less restrictive immigration laws helped bring in an influx of these trained workers. They were especially targeted for their proficiency in English. The United States had set up nursing schools as a way of assimilating Filipino people and preparing them for the labor market.
Today, Filipinos make up a third of all foreign-born nurses, making them an integral part of our health care systems. In the midst of a global pandemic, they have poured endless emotional and physical labor to revive our nation. This care, however, is met with little reciprocity. Lack of personal protective equipment, a sharp uptick in overtime hours and rising anti-Asian sentiment have made Filipino American nurses weary. Filipinos have been nursing a country back to health — a country that never cared about them in the first place.
Neither of my parents dreamed of becoming nurses. My father first took up carpentry, and my mother dreamed of designing buildings. Yet, for my parents, and for so many other Filipino migrants, nursing was the practical path towards social mobility. They work not only for their families here, but for those left behind as well — extra shifts at the hospital mean extra money to send home. And by and large, these nurses go the extra mile for those in their care. I have heard countless stories in my community of workers filling the gaps where institutions and bureaucracy fall short of showing patients compassion. These obligations make Filipinos vulnerable to exploitation and harassment in the workplace. Indeed, Filipino nurses face routine discrimination for speaking their native languages in the workplace, and this discrimination is actually associated with higher health risks. Racism is literally killing our communities.
Across the country — and against a backdrop of rising anti-Asian sentiment — Filipino nurses have been faced severe harassment: from being spat on to shoved off of trains. We are not showing care to our caretakers. Donate to organizations helping to fight this racial violence — our nurses have enough to worry about. We are still struggling through a pandemic. We may be celebrating a return to “normal,” but our nurses are still in crisis mode, expending their own health for the sake of their patients. The only way out of this pandemic is together. Wear your masks. Get vaccinated — it’s free! Stay six feet apart. Help reduce the spread of this virus. Nurses devote love, care and compassion for a living — let’s do it out of our own free will.