Arab American Doctors on the Frontlines of the Pandemic
By: John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer
If you happen to be a consumer of cable TV, over the past few months you’ve probably seen a large number of Arab American physicians, nurses, epidemiologists, and other public health experts discussing the Covid-19 Pandemic. It might seem that these health workers have had an oversized role in dealing with the Pandemic, given that Arab Americans only comprise less than 1% of the total U.S. population. The number of these specialists, in fact, represents their impressive part in serving patients and in analyzing the public health aspects of how to improve the management of Covid-19 across the country. Many of them are women physicians and nurses.
Ramadan poses a larger-than-average burden on Muslim healthcare workers
Fasting through the day, breaking the fast at sunset, and then taking breakfast before sunrise is taxing on the body in normal times. During this period of the Coronavirus, Ramadan is more difficult than usual for Muslim healthcare workers to observe, since this virus is nothing less than normal. The Los Angeles Times reported a story of how Dr. Imran Siddiqui, director of a medical group in Victorville, CA, adapts to the rigors of Ramadan. Dr. Siddiqui arises at 4:30 A.M. for breakfast, and then he’s off to the hospital, with the day ahead void of food, water, or coffee. On a health basis, he realizes that such fasting in the Covid-19 environment is challenging, especially given the decision to not hydrate periodically with water.
Another emergency medicine physician, at the Chicago Medical Center and director of the Initiative on Islam and Medicine, Aasim I. Padela, also according to the LA Times, noted in the context of Ramadan, “This COVID-19 situation doesn’t really change that normality…Now what has been a concern is that frontline workers like me who are fasting and making very critical decisions or surgeons who are making critical decisions … people are saying it might be more difficult, I might become more dehydrated because I have to wear all these extra layers of protection. That’s a credible concern although there’s no data that I know of to show that.” In another respect, Padela said that treating patients during Ramadan actually helps him to maintain his focus—that the fast even helps to energize him.
As Dr. Siddiqui noted as he was about to launch into Ramadan during the Covid-19 epoch, “For the next 30 days, I’ll be handling that stress with both a renewed faith and an empty stomach.” He has a few more days of fasting ahead, with Ramadan ending on May 23.
Arab American Physician as a hospital practitioner and TV analyst of Covid-19
Dr. Najy Masri is the director of Louisiana State University Hospital Services and Associate Professor of Hospital Medicine. He is also an analyst for cable channel MSNBC, where, in between all his other duties, he presents updates on the epidemic in New Orleans, which became an epicenter of the virus. At one point, Dr. Masri referred to the city as having had the highest death rate per capita in the U.S. As he noted on MSNBC, New Orleans “…was the perfect storm” waiting to happen, since a few weeks before the first case of the virus, “we had Mardi Gras.” He continued, “And if you want to talk about an event that is the polar opposite of social distancing, it`s really Mardi Gras.” Furthermore, Masri reported, “There`s a lot we don`t know about this virus. But one thing, for sure, we know is that this virus is not discriminating. It goes after the old, the young, men, women, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, nationality. It`s aggressive, and it`s out there, and it`s certainly in our community.”
Dr. Masri also reported to MSNBC about some of the issues related to equipment shortages at his hospital, such as ventilators. He noted that he had never seen as many patients who end up on a ventilator, a number he had not seen in any earlier disease process. As an analyst, Masri suggested that the planning stages in New Orleans were similar to those in New York City and that, in planning for many more patients, the City reallocated the convention center to house 1,200 beds to reduce the burden on hospitals.
In his role as medical planner and manager, Dr. Masri has clearly demonstrated his attention to the larger ecosystem that comprises the medical response to Covid-19. As he reported on MSNBC, “I think the media has done a great job of covering the lack of PPE (personal protective equipment) and its effect on hospital providers. And, by hospital provider, I’m not just talking about the doctors and nurses. I applaud the teams that we have here locally and nationally. We`re talking about the therapists and case managers, the food services, the janitorial services, transport. Everyone is out there and putting themselves at risk. And it`s the effect of the lack of PPE in the home setting that’s also important to note.”
As a viewer of MSNBC, I’ve observed Dr. Masri’s physical appearance over the past several weeks, which by now has shown the degree of fatigue he has undergone in his critical hospital and broadcasting roles. In one recent TV report, he lamented, “My colleagues, a lot of the people I know that work in the hospital settings are completely isolating themselves from their families for fear that due to some of the lack of the PPE, they may be exposed, and they don`t want to bring that exposure risk down to their family.”
These two snippets about male Doctors are by no means representative of the totality of Arab American health workers, who apply themselves diligently every day to fighting the pandemic. In particular, there are innumerable women who’ve shown up on the Covid-19 battlefield. We will feature them in an upcoming posting.
Two Arab Americans who are serving in the Administration’s Covid-19 task force should be mentioned: one is Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary, Lebanese- American attorney Alex Azar, and Moroccan-born Moncef Slaoui, an epidemiologist, who is heading the Administration’s vaccine initiative.
“This year’s Ramadan bears an extra test for Muslim healthcare workers on the coronavirus front lines,” Kevin Baxter, The Los Angeles Times, 4/24/2020
“Coronavirus: Arab-American medics on the front line of battle in the US,” N World, Joyce Karam, 5/2020
“The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell” MSNBC, Transcript, 3/3/2020
John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID and the World Bank in 65 countries.
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