Coronavirus doctor's diary: 'They say I have blood on my hands'

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John Wright

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Within Bradford’s Asian community a few individuals are spreading fake news that non-white patients will be left to die in hospital. Dr John Wright of Bradford Royal Infirmary hears from an anaesthetist who has been receiving abusive messages as a result.

The isolation of patients in the hospital from the community outside continues to spark small fires of uncertainty and false rumours. This is happening in cities across the country, and Bradford is no exception.

Sometimes it’s claimed that the higher death rate among black, Asian and other ethnic minority patients is because they are being killed off by the very hospital staff meant to help them.

For our Muslim clinicians, to have their dedication and professionalism questioned as they work long shifts in the Covid wards while fasting during the holy month of Ramadan must be especially galling.

But one of my colleagues, consultant anaesthetist Fozia Hayat, has been telling me about a malicious and foolish message she recently received from a local scaremonger.

It came after her husband tried to dispute a story about hospitals leaving people to die that has been circulating for weeks, as I wrote on 18 April. He said it was wrong, and that his wife, Fozia, could vouch for this as a result of her work in the infirmary’s intensive care unit.

Front line diary

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Tom Lawton

Prof John Wright, a doctor and epidemiologist, is head of the Bradford Institute for Health Research, and a veteran of cholera, HIV and Ebola epidemics in sub-Saharan Africa. He is writing this diary for BBC News and recording from the hospital wards for BBC Radio.

At this point Fozia started getting sent videos, most of which she didn’t open. But there was one she did watch, and she posted a brief reply.

“I essentially replied to say, ‘Just be careful what you share, and look at both sides of the argument. It’s important to ensure that you’ve got all the information as you might cause harm – you might stop somebody coming into hospital.'”

The abusive messages continued, despite the start of Ramadan and one text message was particularly offensive.

“I’ve been sent a message saying that NHS workers are working on bonuses, that we’re taking money for putting Covid on death certificates and we are essentially taking money for life. And I think that’s a really cruel thing to say to someone,” she told me.

The message accused doctors of forcing people to sign Do Not Resuscitate forms. It also suggested that Covid-19 didn’t actually exist. Then it said: “Please stop selling out and being a mushroom and stand up for the truth. You’ll be held responsible in the court of Allah for the deaths of these people, for negligence in this life, and life is very short.”

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John Wright

Fozia looked up the meaning of “mushroom” on the internet and discovered it was someone who was kept in the dark and fed false information.

“This is the month of Ramadan and we fast in our family, we are practising, and it was quite hard to have somebody send me a message to say, ‘You’re a sell-out, you’re corrupt, a mushroom… You’ve got blood on your hands,'” she says.

She was also surprised that it was sent by someone who runs a successful business in Bradford. Not the kind of person you would necessarily expect to fall for fake news.

“They seem like fairly sensible people, but that makes it even more worrying,” she says.

“It’s fine to have an opinion. But don’t be cruel. And don’t accuse people of things. It’s Ramadan and it’s meant to be a time to be kind and generous to each other.”

Our concern is that one or two scaremongers are influencing our patients to stay away from hospital when they really need care.

We know from our own data in the hospital that outcomes for our white and South Asian patients are equally good, but careless talk will cost lives and change this for the worse.

We also know that overall – looking at national and international data – black and South Asian patients are at greater risk of dying from Covid-19, so it is imperative that they seek appropriate care without delay.

Fozia reported the offensive message to the police. They were sympathetic, but she decided not to take it further.

Instead, she is going to talk about it on Radio Ramadan, at the suggestion of Zulfi Karim, head of the Bradford Council of Mosques – and she will reassure people that if they are sick they will be looked after in hospital regardless of their creed or colour.

When I put Zulfi and Fozia in touch, he was disturbed by what she had been through, at a time when she had been working hard to save lives, and said he was determined to tackle false rumours.

“We can investigate where it’s coming from and perhaps speak to some of those involved. So much good work is going on in the community to educate and inform people and it’s really sad that this is happening, and it’s very worrying,” he said.

“I think we need to deal with the urgent issues and we need to react to messages to make sure we keep people coming into the hospital.”

Follow @docjohnwright and radio producer @SueM1tchell on Twitter

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