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In pictures: NHS workers fighting to keep a COVID-19 ward safe

So many of the doctors, nurses, cleaners and other key workers at London’s Whipps Cross hospital hail from far beyond the UK’s shores.

The young filmmaker Hassan Akkad landed in London in late 2015, ending a harrowing journey from his war-torn home of Syria — footage from which would go on to win a BAFTA award. Quite a welcome party. Several years on, Akkad has hit pause on his life in his adopted home and stepped in to work as a cleaner in his local hospital. In between cleaning shifts, he’s made portraits of the workers around him who are helping battle the coronavirus pandemic. He spoke with POLITICO last week about his experiences, and what it feels like to be thrown back into a crisis upturning everyone’s lives. Keep up with Hassan’s work on his Twitter feed. The captions to the portraits below are Hassan’s, as posted to social media.

Meet my colleague Nesar. Nesar used to tell her parents when she was little that she wanted to do something to help people, especially in difficult circumstances. It drew her to medicine, and she’s been working as a doctor for the past five years. “Now that I’m qualified, my main draw is to patients who require real holistic care, especially when we start to think about quality of life over quantity,” she says. “I have worked in hospices in Liverpool and London, and found them beautiful places. To have a snapshot into so many different peoples’ lives at once, I find, is a real privilege.” When I asked her what the hardest part of her job was, she said “when I know I have to phone a relative to say that a loved one is deteriorating. I always take a deep breath before I dial, and just remind myself every time to think about every word that’s coming out of my mouth. It’s those conversations, especially at this time, that mean the most to families. I want them to know that we are looking after their family members as if they were our own.” Nesar is an NHS hero.

Tell us a little about how you’ve been spending your days since this all started.

The people at the front lines of this crisis amaze me every day with their resilience, care and professionalism. It’s my honor to be able to share their stories.

As I’m sure you can imagine, my daily rhythm has changed entirely. My shift starts at 7 a.m., so I’m up as the sun is rising, preparing for the day at work. I do an eight-hour shift, which includes mopping, scrubbing and disinfecting high-touch surfaces throughout the COVID-19 ward. Typically, I finish around 3 p.m. and go home to my fiancée. She’s currently working full time as well, from home. It’s busy, but we always try to carve out some time for each other. She’s been incredibly supportive of me and my work. I find the biggest challenge is unwinding at the end of the day, especially when it’s been an intense shift.

Perlita is a nurse on my ward. She’s been a nurse for more than 30 years and has been working for the NHS in for the last 18 years. She’s from Manila, in the Philippines. Her signature dish is noodles. She has a big family — two sons and two daughters. One daughter works as an ITU nurse and one works in computer science. One of her sons works in hotel management, the other, Jericho, works as a student nurse at Whipps Cross. Today our ward was short on staff, so she rang Jericho. He worked alongside his mom all day. “I rely on him,” she said. “He’s a super son.” Perlita and Jericho are NHS heroes.

Why did you feel compelled to get involved in this way? Was it just a matter of “let me help, in any way I can?”

Nearly two months ago, when the virus was declared a global pandemic but no measures were in place yet in the U.K., I felt similar to how I felt at the start of the revolution in Syria back in 2011. An uncertain, major shift was taking place. As the virus started spreading in the U.K. and the number of cases announced on the news grew exponentially, it became clear to me that life could not continue as “normal.”

For me, this meant temporarily stepping away from my work as a filmmaker and photojournalist, and finding a way to make a more direct contribution to my community. I applied to the NHS volunteering scheme, and for seasonal work in agricultural fields outside London, but didn’t get a response. So I did some food shopping deliveries for my neighbors instead. After a few days of trying to make myself as useful as possible, I came across a call for cleaners for my local hospital, Whipps Cross. They called me back the day after I submitted an application.

Meet my colleague Giby. Giby has been a nurse for more than 20 years. She moved to the U.K. from Kerala, India. Her parents still live there, so she constantly worries about and misses them. She lives in London with her teenage daughter and son, who she raises with her husband, a pastor. She’s a kind, sensitive person — the hardest part of her job, she says, is having to tell friends and family bad news about their loved ones. Yesterday, it made her cry, but she continues her work on the ward with compassion, diligence and care. Giby is an NHS hero.

What are you seeing in the halls and rooms of the hospital currently? Are the workers who have been going non-stop for weeks finally getting a chance to breathe, or are things just as frantic as ever?

I started during the peak. That was 45 days ago. The ward has 18 beds and during that time we never had an empty one. All the staff were working long hours. I could see the exhaustion on my ward manager, Pilar’s, face. I could see it on everyone’s face. But everyone was going above and beyond to keep my ward — Birch ward — running.

The intensity in the ward has lessened in the past couple of weeks due to the reducing number of COVID-19 cases. We have been able to take days off to breathe and to reflect. We’ve started talking about the intensity of what we witnessed during the peak and are trying to prepare for the uncertainty of the future, because uncertainty has come hand in hand with this virus. No one really understands it but we were, and still are, working really hard to combat it.

Today, on International Nurses Day, I want to celebrate my colleague Pilar. Sister Pilar is my ward manager and my boss. She has worked as a nurse for the past 12 years, and she goes above and beyond to protect her patients and staff. I was quite nervous on my first [day] in the COVID-19 ward. Sister Pilar called us all to a meeting in her office to say that no one steps foot in the ward without full PPE, even cleaning staff. Sister Pilar is from northern Spain, and has lived the pandemic twice — once, remotely, through worry for her family and friends back home — and now on her ward in east London. I’m not exaggerating when I say she holds us all together. Today I am thinking of the nurses like Sister Pilar around the world keeping their patients safe. Thank you for your care, professionalism and compassion. You are health care heroes. Lots of love, Hassan.

While we are past the peak, there is still a lot of suffering. There are still patients, who I have become friends with, who are not getting better and who are unable to be physically close to their loved ones. That doesn’t get any easier. If anything, the emotional toll that comes with having time to reflect is just as heavy as the shift work.

Whipps Cross hospital is an incredible operation. I see porters constantly getting things where they need to be — from patients in beds, to supplies, to PPE and chairs. I see the catering staff and ward hosts getting the food from the kitchen and prepping it for the patients. As cleaners, we’re disinfecting every inch of the hospital. Nurses are in and out of the ward keeping a watchful eye on patients. Consultants and doctors are in their offices constantly on their phones and computers checking on patients almost every hour. I see phlebotomists coming to take blood samples to take to the lab. I see the security guard at the door making sure everyone is safe.

What I see in the ward is humanity at its best. Individuals taking care of others as they would their own. Recently, I’ve watched many patients be discharged. Seeing the staff who cared for them wave goodbye, with big smiles on their faces, is amazing.

Meet my colleague Catharine. Everyone at the ward refers to Catherine as Mama because she’s the oldest, wisest and the person we go to if we’re having a tough day. Catharine moved to London from Trinidad 26 years ago. She has been working in the health care sector for more than two decades. I can’t find the right words to describe Catharine’s grace and kindness. She literally stands for hours next to patients keeping a watchful eye on them. Catherine is a single mother to one daughter. She worked long hours for years to afford sending her daughter to Cambridge to study law. Mama Catharine is an NHS hero.

One of the things you’ve talked about repeatedly is the diversity not just of your adopted city, but of the NHS workers responding to this situation. How does it make you feel to see so many people, who come from so many different places, all working as one to help their neighbors? 

It makes me feel proud, and humbled. The diversity of NHS workers is not new. International nurses, porters, cleaners, doctors and ward hosts have formed the backbone of the NHS for as long as it has been around. It isn’t so much about seeing them all coming together to help their neighbors — they’ve always done that — it’s about acknowledging it in a concrete way. I definitely have hope, but what is really needed is action and policy change.

My friends at Choose Love recently summarized it perfectly. They said, “while the hard work and sacrifices many migrant workers are making on the frontline of this crisis should be recognized and remembered, no one should have to risk their lives in order to be recognized as a human being. A person’s ‘usefulness’ should not define their worth. We should recognize and respect our common humanity, regardless of immigration status. Not just in a crisis, but all the time.”

Louise: “Care for one … that’s love. Care for hundreds … that’s nursing.”

I’ve been asked several times if I’ve felt it’s my duty to “pay back” my community. The answer is no and yes. The right to seek asylum and freedom from torture is innate and inalienable. My refugee status is also my right under international humanitarian law. Refugees shouldn’t have to “earn” protection twice. I volunteered to work at the hospital, and if I hadn’t made that decision, I would still be just as entitled to my asylum status. However, as a proud Londoner, I do feel it’s my duty to support my community. I wanted to support my neighbors. If we come together in kindness and love, wherever we’re from, whatever we look like, and no matter how much we make, we can fundamentally reshape this world.

Meet my colleague Cherelle, aka Cherry. Cherry is a 24-year old British Caribbean. She loves Reggae and R&B, and the last show she binged was Stranger Things. When her shift is over, she plays music and dances for patients to cheer them up. Cherry is a full-time carer. During the day, she is a nursing assistant in our COVID-19 ward and at night she looks after her dad who has been fighting prostate cancer and leukemia for over 20 years. As a child, Cherry used to accompany her dad to Whipps Cross, where the nurses would shower her with love and kindness and feed her plenty of soup. Her father — and the nurses’ dedication to him — is why she chose this profession. They were both meant to go to Grenada, where her mum lives, but travelling restrictions stood in the way. I asked her what she’s planning on doing when this nightmare is over, she answered, “I’m going back to school to study and become a nurse.” Cherry isn’t just an NHS hero. She’s a role model and a hustler.

To that end, has this crisis — watching it, participating in the response to it — changed how you view migration policy in the U.K. at all?

I’m curious to see how this collective experience changes migration policy in the U.K.. This year was already going to be defined by questions about the kind of country we want to be as we leave the EU. Where initially it looked like the pandemic would pause those conversations for the foreseeable future, I think now we’re seeing that it’s actually enlivened them, and involved everyone in them.

Meet my colleague Sandra. Sandra is British Jamaican, and she has been working as a health care assistant in the NHS for 20 years. Sandra is a mother to three men and a grandmother to six. She is a force. You can feel her presence in every corner of our ward. I was intimated by her for a while, but recently she started referring to me as her personal photographer. It’s worth mentioning that Sandra is one of 15 women who work in our ward. In fact, women dominate essential, but low-paid, professions such as nursing and social care. A study by think tank Autonomy found that of the U.K.’s 3 million workers at high risk of the virus, 77 percent are women. If this doesn’t abolish the gender pay gap, what will? Sandra is an NHS hero.

It’s never been clearer that we’re global citizens — our well-being complexly intertwined with that of other countries — whether we like it or not. “Unskilled” immigrant workers are now “essential” and “key.” These make up a large chunk of the people we’re clapping for from our doorsteps every Thursday evening. We can’t go back to the same anti-immigrant, xenophobic rhetoric and policy that was so widespread before, and which continues to be normalized. I see energy for correcting past mistakes, and that gives me hope.

Meet my colleague Vittorio. Vittorio is from Turin, in northern Italy, where his mother in her 90s is isolating. Due to travel restrictions, he’s been unable to visit her. He is 52 years old, an avid chess player and book worm, with two sons who are both guitarists. He’s been working at our hospital as a health care assistant for three years. I asked him why he keeps coming to the frontline of this crisis, day after day. He replied simply, “Because it is my job.” Vittorio is an NHS hero.

How are family and friends back in Syria, and elsewhere, handling the pandemic and what comes with it? Are you still able to keep in regular touch with the loved ones who aren’t physically near you? 

Social distancing isn’t new to us Syrians. The revolution which turned into a proxy war back in my home country has driven a Syrian diaspora around the world. When my brother — with whom I shared a bedroom for 22 years — got married, I attended on Skype. I’ve watched my niece and nephew grow up on Skype. My parents celebrated my engagement eight months ago on Skype. This isn’t new to us. We are familiar with the queues outside supermarkets and with the constant worry for loved ones — because they’re in detention centers. Children aren’t going to school — because their schools were bombed.

Meet my colleague Albert. Albert is British Ghanaian — he moved to the U.K. in the 1990s. He is 50 years old, and he has been working as a cleaner at our hospital for 15 years. On my first day, I was sent to one of the COVID-19 wards to be trained by him. Albert is a tough master, and he likes things his way. The first thing he said was, “Hassan, you have to protect yourself and your family. Wear PPE all the time please and remember to wash your hands.” Albert is a father to two daughters. One is studying to be a doctor and the other is a musician. I asked Albert today, “Why do you risk your life by coming here every day during this pandemic?” He said, “Hassan I have to clean, and I have to feed my daughters.” I am so proud to have Albert as a boss. Albert is an NHS hero.

I wouldn’t think of comparing what you fled in Syria to what’s happening now in the U.K. and around the world … They’re both crises, but the similarities, I would think, end there. But how did one inform the other? If you hadn’t experienced such upheaval and turmoil and conflict in Syria, do you think you’d have had the same reaction to dig in and help in your new home?

When the pandemic hit I panicked, because I was triggered. A crisis on a much bigger scale hit my first home, and now I can see and feel it hitting my adopted home. But in the U.K., the army is working around the clock, sourcing medical supplies and delivering them to hospitals. In Syria, the army systematically targeted and bombed hospitals. While there are some similarities, this pandemic is not a “great leveler,” as some people have described. It’s experienced differently depending on your circumstances. I’ve seen it described as “the great magnifier,” which I think is more accurate.

Meet my colleague Gimba. Gimba is British Nigerian, and she has been working at our hospital for over 10 years as a ward host. Gimba’s favorite colours are white and yellow and she loves eating rice. Yesterday, she got some bad news that her mother had fallen ill and was taken to a hospital in Nigeria. Gimba was heartbroken that she wouldn’t be able to fly home to see her mother because of travel restrictions during the pandemic. That, however, didn’t stop her from carrying on doing her job preparing food for the COVID-19 patients in our ward. I took this photo of her while she was having her lunch — chicken and rice — in the staff room during our break. Gimba is an NHS hero.

Working on the COVID-19 ward has awoken something in me I hadn’t felt since 2011, when I stood up with my fellow Syrians to peacefully protest the Assad regime as a united front with a larger purpose. Now, I stand again to support my community and Whipps Cross, and to advocate for the rights of migrant and working-class communities both in the U.K. and around the world. I invite everyone to join me in this effort.

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