Pandemic or not, immigrants’ work has always been essential.
By Yasin Kakande May 18, 2020
Mr. Kakande is a journalist and author from Uganda currently working as a home health aide. His most recent book is “Why We Are Coming.”
BOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Recently, as I drove home from a long day of work as a home health aide, a police cruiser appeared behind me with lights flashing. It was 10 p.m. and the roads were nearly empty. As I pulled to the side of the road, my heart was pounding.
As a black man from Uganda, I was nervous. Charlie Baker, the governor of Massachusetts, had just issued a 9 p.m. curfew across the state. In the three excruciatingly long minutes it took for the officer to approach my car, I tried to sort out why I was being stopped and what would happen next.
When the officer appeared at my window, he asked just one question: “Essential worker?” I quickly replied that I was. He waved me off without asking for my driver’s license — my skin color told him everything he needed to know.
When I arrived at the home of Rosemary Larking in March, a 71-year-old quadriplegic, I noticed she was struggling to breathe. As her regular personal care aide, I saw that the adaptor connecting her ventilator to the oxygen tank was broken. I immediately called her doctor for support.
But this was not business-as-usual, as the coronavirus pandemic had already disrupted normal workflow patterns, especially in health care facilities, and I wanted to avoid her being sent to one.
I activated her lifeline alarm for emergency assistance, but as soon as a paramedic arrived, her doctor called. He told us not to go the hospital’s emergency care department, noting that she is in a high-risk category for contracting COVID-19. He told me to contact the suppliers of her oxygen tank or her ventilator and get them to her home as soon as possible.
A mad dash of phone calls erupted as I tried to reach her suppliers and others in Massachusetts who could fix the problem. In the meantime, I carried Rosemary from her bed to her wheelchair, which seemed to ease her distress.
Four hours later, the ventilator supplier arrived with the replacement parts. As we settled in after the crisis, some of Rosemary’s neighbors stopped by to see how she was doing. They had seen the fire department paramedics wheeling a gurney into her apartment and then leaving with it empty, which confused them. I assured them that everything was fine, taking the precaution not to let them into the apartment, given her risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
It was an exhausting day, and when I went home that evening, it was not easy to decompress after the worry and panic. Whenever a chronically ill patient experiences a life-threatening crisis, every moment is critical.
This scenario is a familiar one, not just for me but for tens of thousands of immigrants who are working on the front lines as personal-care attendants and nursing assistants for patients just like Rosemary Larking. And it’s not only the elderly, but also for patients of all ages who live with disabilities and physical limitations of all types.
My colleagues and I are taking precautions to ensure we are not exposed to the virus so we can continue to provide critical services to our patients and clients. And demand for caregivers is skyrocketing. Elderly patients and those with limiting disabilities who have no family members nearby rely primarily on aides like me. We do everything from bathing them and helping them maintain good hygiene to preparing their meals and feeding them. They are vulnerable and rely on us to keep them safe and secure.
It’s a rigorous job, and the caregiving field has struggled to recruit young people. Many aides in nursing homes, assisted living centers, group homes, and hospital-affiliated centers are immigrants like me. I started working with RosemaryLarking three years ago, shortly after arriving in the United States from Uganda.
For many migrants, the field of caregiving offers immediate opportunities with minimal skill requirements. My background is as a journalist who has covered beats in numerous countries around the world. I never imagined myself in this position, but here I am. My patients, especially Rosemary Larking, have become my de facto family, and I’m grateful for the job.
The pandemic amplifies a point that policy makers should heed. Essential home care-based and nursing home services for patients, who are among the most vulnerable to the virus, are made possible largely through the cumulative efforts of immigrants and refugees who have come to the United States.
This crisis has brought much to light. One point that has received little recognition is the critical role immigrants play in the US health care system. Political leaders should acknowledge this and allow them to come here and work without fears of punitive actions or deportation.
Caregivers still have to fight to stay in the United States. As an occupational category, they are not among those professions or skills that are eligible for employment-related green cards. These visas go primarily to researchers, professors, engineers, or multinational managers, but not to caregivers. And this continues, despite the fact that there are more job openings for caregivers than there are for professors and researchers, especially during this time of crisis.
Rosemary Larking is not alone in her home. Her husband, Donald, 73, is frail after five strokes that have paralyzed his body’s right side. The Larkings are in the highest risk category for complications that could arise should either of them contract the virus. My colleagues and I are even more cautious now to keep them safe. It is a challenge, since they rely on several aides for their care. And many aides care for other patients just like the Larkings. It is a precarious situation. One broken link in the chain of front-line health care could cause a cascading health crisis for the most vulnerable groups during this pandemic. That is why even the smallest precautions matter every day.
16 November, 2018 I will be speaking at Q Berlin QUESTIQNS 2018. As part of the opening session, I will discuss how to strengthen a society within current power structures. Learn more about the conference on the Q Berlin website.
This article on the hypocrisy of countries blocking migrants was first published in the global magazine Truthout, 28-August 2018
Amidst waves of anti-immigrant populism that have crashed into European politics, the focus of what drives migration demands more attention. In Africa, specifically, the unchecked exploitation of the continent’s natural resources by corporations from outside countries has forced desperate choices upon its citizens. Migrants looking for their own modicum of economic justice have come to the West. But, once they arrive, they discover the extraordinary extents to which they must prove their “worthiness” and acceptance in the same European nations that benefited from taking their homelands’ natural resources for profit.
Recently, the French Parliament adopted legislation that places new restrictions on migrants seeking asylum. It seems that even being seen as twice as “good” as the rest barely qualifies migrants for acceptance into predominantly white societies. At what superhuman level should migrants be expected to operate in order to eliminate the concerns or skepticisms aggravated by nationalistic, nativist sentiments?
This is not so different from my experience in Dubai, when I applied for a reporting job at The National newspaper. I had to prove to my European editors – coincidentally, migrants themselves – that I could cover the four northern emirates of Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah and Ras al-Khaimah, where Arabic was the only spoken language.
The editor who recruited me once asked how I managed to cover events that were happening at about the same time in Ras al-Khaimah and Sharjah, separated by about 56 miles. My response was simple: “Because that is the reason you hired me.” There was a tacitly agreed upon willingness (or desperation) to take on a load larger than what colleagues carried. And it was at a salary much less than that of other comparably qualified staff members.
My fluency in English and Arabic kept me at the job for more than five years. I worked on stories and shared bylines with other reporters, who happened to be white migrant professionals from Europe. Once the emirate government grew uncomfortable with my stories about the difficulties abused and disenfranchised migrants faced working abroad, I was deported with no support from my editors. I now have been in the US for nearly two years, and I am still perplexed about how to prove my own “superhuman” capabilities to legitimize my presence and role in US society.
Intolerance of migrants, especially of African descent, might strike some as a new phenomenon. But historical memories matter. For centuries, Europe sent out millions of its own migrants to settle elsewhere. In the instances of Africa and Asia, guns – not visas – set the movement’s pace.
To understand why the numbers of Africans continue to leave their homelands to work as migrants in the West, one must look to the history of how Africa has been hyperexploited in the global economy.
A History of Exploiting a Continent
The continent’s natural and mineral resources are targets of predatory wealth where no costs are incurred for unfettered exploitation. In many African nations, dictatorial puppets, often handpicked and supported by their Western exploiters, continue this relationship. This occurs at the expense of their own citizens who need and would benefit the most from the resources of their homelands.
Meanwhile, the continent’s deprived migrants are seen as “nuisances” by white citizens in Western nations occasionally, but more often are portrayed as “burdens” that “threaten” the nation’s economic livelihood.
Last June, Pope Francis spoke about the topic in advance of a European Union summit on migration. He said:
When a country grants independence to an African country it is from the ground up – but the subsoil is not independent. And then people [outside Africa] complain about hungry Africans coming here. There are injustices there.
Migrants use all means, some perilous, to leave their exploited homelands seeking economic opportunity elsewhere. As gold mines, oil fields and large farms in Africa continue to be owned by Western investors and these vital resources are shipped or airlifted to the West, the stream of African immigrants will flow continuously. African migrants see no hopes in gaining their rightful share of this wealth. Simply, they leave because the risk of staying is the same as abandoning their countries.
Some gasped at Donald Trump’s unfiltered, unedited pronouncements, which historically echo sentiments that previously were uttered in private, never-to-be shared moments. Addressing a gathering of African leaders at the United Nations General Assembly in 2017, Trump said:
Africa has tremendous business potential. I have so many friends going to your countries trying to get rich. I congratulate you; they’re spending a lot of money. It has tremendous business potential, representing huge amounts of different markets. … It’s really become a place they have to go, that they want to go.
The same president, however, was disturbed by Africans whose “rich friends” have deprived their fellow citizens of economic opportunities and has triggered broad migration. Hence, he wondered aloud why the US should continue accepting immigrants from what he describes as “s**thole countries.”
Meanwhile, France is investigating two of its former presidents for alleged acts of corruption. Nicolas Sarkozy is accused of collecting 50 million euros from former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi for his 2007 presidential campaign. Jacques Chirac is accused of asking Robert Bourgi, lawyer and politician, of collecting and carrying for him cash from various African dictators. The value is estimated to total $20 million.
These two instances constitute just a small fraction of the examples of corruption, compared to what African dictators have doled out in mining concessions to European and US corporations. Businesses from banking to entertainment and sports in Africa are largely European or US-based. African governments have cowed to US pressure to continue taking in their used clothes at the expense of local African garment industries.
According to an analysisby Global Justice Now and the Jubilee Debt Campaign, as reported by the Guardian, more streams of wealth-building revenue leave Africa every year going to former colonialist countries than revenue streams coming into the continent. African countries received $162 billion in 2015, mainly in loans, aid and personal remittances. But, in the same year, $203 billion in revenue that could have sustained local African economies was taken from the continent.
If European countries and the US insist upon blocking African migrants from entering their borders, then perhaps they also should block African resources from entering their countries as well. Then, maybe African migrants will finally be able to reap their own economic benefits from the resources of their homelands — that is, if corrupt African leaders respect such embargoes and allow their citizens to take part in the wealth.