On Sunday morning, Meenal Viz, a six-and-a-half month pregnant hospital doctor, decided that she’d had enough. “I just decided that I was not going to sit in silence and watch our colleagues die. I knew that I had to do something.”
The “something” was to put on her scrubs and drive to Downing Street from her home in London with a homemade placard saying “Protect Healthcare Workers”. For two hours, she set up a lonely vigil outside the gates, a silent protest at the daily-mounting toll of healthcare workers who have died of Covid-19 – a toll that reached 100 deaths on Monday.
“I wanted to show the government, show the public, that this is not OK. And we will not stay silent. These deaths are being normalised. But there is nothing normal about it. It’s become normal not to have PPE or to accept that the guidelines about what’s required is based on supply, not the science. It’s become normal to see healthcare workers dying. But it’s not normal. And we will step up and speak out,” Viz said.
“It was such a stark difference, standing there in the sunshine. You know the people making decisions are there inside these beautiful buildings. But we are seeing life and death. We are fighting for aprons. Outside, you can believe that everything is OK. I even probably fooled myself – but then you come home and it’s another 800 dead. It’s why I had to do this now.”
Viz’s protest was captured by an AP photographer and appeared on newspaper front pages. She had a plan for what to do if she got arrested, but hadn’t thought much further than that. And though she doesn’t want to say where she works or name her hospital trust – she says the issue is a national one – she is determined to speak out. The difficulty of doing so has spurred her on, with NHS trusts warning staff that they could face disciplinary action if they speak to the press.
“We are being silenced. In our own hospitals. By our own managers. A lot of people are afraid for their own safety but they’re also afraid of losing their jobs. Some of them have visas tied to their work or families to feed. There’s just an awful lot of pressure not to. I thought, who’s going to listen to me? I’m a south Asian woman, a pregnant woman. I thought, ‘Will anyone listen to me?’ But I thought, I just have to at least try.”
The tipping point came last week with the death of Mary Agyeiwaa Agyapong, a pregnant nurse who, at 28, was just a year older than Viz. “I didn’t sleep when I heard. And I cried. I cried a lot. I said, who is going to speak for her? Is she going to be just another statistic?
“All I could think about was her daughter in ICU with no idea who her mother is. Her mother had given her life to the NHS. I thought, how can I sit back and let her be just be another number? And this is happening to so many other families. And it is not OK. They just can’t get away with this. We knew this was coming. We are not children asking for Christmas presents. We are asking for help protecting our safety so that we can protect the public.”
Until the beginning of the crisis, Viz was working on an acute ward and came into contact with suspected and confirmed Covid-19 patients. She asked to be moved and is now in a different part of the hospital, but she is still expected to show up to work.
“Pregnant women are high-risk. They are supposed to be home, but it depends hospital to hospital and the guidance is for third trimester only. But there is so much we don’t know about this virus. And they are making up policies as they go along. I really don’t know what I’ve exposed myself or my unborn child to.”
Britain could end up with the highest toll of dead healthcare workers in the world, Viz believes, and she no longer trusts the government’s promises. “This was avoidable. These are unnecessary deaths. It’s not a ‘war’. This is a health crisis. This is systemic negligence. I’m not a warrior. And none of us should have to ‘sacrifice’ ourselves to do our jobs.
“The support of the public has been amazing. It really helps us to show up and carry on. But no amount of clapping or badges is going to bring Mary back. This just has to end now.”