'They are the heroes now': US doctors treating coronavirus patients join racism protests

Nurses and healthcare workers attend a rally in front of Bellevue Hospital in New York on June 4, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (AFP) - New York nurses and doctors, hailed as heroes for fighting the coronavirus outbreak, are denouncing racial segregation in the public health system by joining the George Floyd protests.

Wearing masks, hospital scrubs and other personal protective equipment like face visors, about a hundred-something medical workers briefly walked out of Manhattan's Bellevue Hospital Thursday (June 4) to demonstrate against structural racism in America.

They held signs reading "Health care for all" and "Racism kills my patients," and knelt silently for eight minutes and 46 seconds - the length of time a Minneapolis police officer pressed down on Mr Floyd's neck before he died.

"We took an oath to serve all communities, we took an oath to protect public health and right now excessive use of force and police brutality is a public health emergency," said Dr Kamini Doobay.

Dr Doobay, an emergency doctor at Bellevue, was one of the organisers of Thursday's co-ordinated protests which involved six hospitals across New York.

"As a health care professional currently fighting Covid-19, I also continue to fight the virus of racism," Billy Jean, a nurse who is black, told the crowd.

The coronavirus epidemic, which killed around 21,000 New York City residents, has disproportionately affected minority communities, including African Americans.

Almost 23 per cent of those who have died across the United States are black, according to official figures, despite black people making up just 13.4 per cent of the population.

In New York, members of the black community died at twice the rate of white people.

Health professionals say a lack of universal health care means underprivileged groups don't receive treatments available to the more wealthy.

"We see patients of color disproportionately dying from chronic illnesses, not getting proper follow up, and of course we see the deadly violence that plagues these communities," said 28-year-old doctor Damilola Idowu.

"Black men coming in with gunshot wounds, and of course the effects of police brutality on our patients, we see all that," she told AFP.

On Tuesday, dozens of doctors and nurses from Mount Sinai Hospital took to the streets to applaud thousands of protesters marching up Fifth Avenue.

Similar spontaneous protests have taken place outside other hospitals in New York and elsewhere in the country, including the Texas Medical Center in Houston and Howard University Hospital in Washington DC.

The applause was reminiscent of the 7pm clap for medical staff that has become a daily ritual for New Yorkers during the coronavirus crisis.

"Thank you!" "We love you!" protesters shouted, stopping to take selfies with the doctors and nurses.

"Now the protestors who are calling out these issues, that are putting their bodies on the line, risking getting arrested, risking police violence themselves, they are the heroes now," said Dr Idowu.

"So it feels appropriate for us to be backing them up and to be cheering them the same way they cheered us when we were battling Covid."

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