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‘I became a full-throttled warrior.’ Frontline workers on their fight against COVID-19

The fight against the coronavirus pandemic has depleted resources, resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and put continued strain on health care workers who are on the frontlines of the crisis. Doctors and nurses are fighting for the lives of their patients, helping some make it back to their families and witnessing others succumb to their symptoms, which all takes a serious mental and physical toll.

The Global Health Reporting Center’s video series “A Diary From the Frontline” spotlights the efforts of four health care workers from the U.S., the UK, Italy and South Africa. Philadelphia nurse Sheena Williams finds herself at a crossroads when national protests over systemic racism and police brutality came amid calls for Americans to stay home. San Diego’s Dr. Davey Smith is balancing clinical trials of a potential COVID-19 treatment with hospital rounds. British nurse Alison Harris has seen her role shift to caring and intubating critically ill patients. Dr. Giuliana Battagin from Italy, who tested positive for COVID-19 early on in the pandemic, has had to put aside her work as an infectious disease doctor to stay home and quarantine– where she spent her time documenting her family’s journey. And Dr. Zolelwa Sifumba, a community service medical officer in rural South Africa, is coping with the rise in COVID-19 cases and treating patients, while also worrying about her own vulnerability.

Here’s a closer look at some of their stories.

“When COVID-19 came about, I became a full-throttled warrior.”

Sheena Williams is a nurse at one of Philadelphia’s biggest hospitals. In the early stages of the pandemic hitting the U.S., she sent her 3-year-old son to live with his dad to protect him. She documented her frustrations and struggles on her Instagram account, urging people to stay home during the pandemic. Shortly after one of her Instagram videos went viral, George Floyd was killed, sparking nationwide protests over police brutality and systemic racism that quickly spread across the globe. Williams has found herself at a crossroads and sees an opportunity to use her platform for good. “I want my page to always be a beacon of light and love and things that I’m passionate about, social injustices going forward. But I also want to continue to spread awareness, number one. Number two is to create accountability because in this world, we’ve got a lot of mess,” Williams said.

The science doesn’t care about politics.

Dr. Davey Smith, a professor and chief of infectious diseases at the University of California at San Diego, firmly believes that a scientific response is the only way out of this pandemic, specifically by conducting rigorous clinical trials. Davey begins filming video diaries just as the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to surge in California.

READ MORE: What you need to know about hydroxychloroquine and coronavirus

During the course of three months, Smith shared how he juggles his increasingly busy ward rounds with a clinical trial studying hydroxychloroquine, a controversial and politically polarizing drug claimed to be able to treat COVID-19. “The science doesn’t care about politics. It doesn’t care whether you are a Republican or a Democrat. It only cares about finding out the truth,” Smith said.

“Looking back at the early days of it, I thought that I would run — run away.”

Alison Harris, an operating department practitioner at a regional hospital in England, currently works solely on the COVID-19 wards, focusing on intubating critically ill patients. This role is new for Harris; prior to the pandemic, she helped patients who were coming in for routine elective surgeries. “Looking back at the early days of it, I thought that I would run — run away. [But] actually, as it got closer, I put on my PPE, and I stood shoulder to shoulder with my colleagues, and we walked towards it,” Harris said.

“I had stuck in my head the images of what I had seen in the hospital.”

Dr. Giuliana Battagin, an infectious disease doctor in a small city near Venice in Italy, tested positive for COVID-19 as she was watching case numbers skyrocket in her small hospital. After testing positive, she had to isolate with her partner and 6-year-old son. For 40 days, she and her partner, a photojournalist, captured what it was like to be a health care worker quarantining at home during a global health crisis.

“Hospitals are supposed to be the place where people go to get better”

Dr. Zolelwa Sifumba, a community service medical officer, is dealing with the rise in COVID-19 numbers in rural South Africa. She survived a struggle with MDR-TB–a form of tuberculosis– and now worries that she may be prone to contracting COVID-19 in the line of duty. During the pandemic, Zolelwa started working with babies in the maternity ward, but was quickly shifted to treating COVID-19 patients as the numbers began to peak. She grapples with the daily stresses of being overworked, increasing anxiety and watching her colleagues contract the disease. “It’s just scary going to work, hospitals are supposed to be the place where people go to get better. It almost feels like there is no safe place,” Sifumba said.

This series was produced by the Global Health Reporting Center, in partnership with Emma Watts of Green Bean Pictures.