When I won the diversity lottery and emigrated to America in 2016 from my native Sudan, I never imagined I’d be one of America’s health care soldiers fighting against a global pandemic. Nowadays it is required for me to have my temperature checked every time I walk into the Miami hospital where I work. When the thermometer comes out, my heart starts racing as I hope for a reading of less than 100. It’s an experience I share with other health care workers in my institution, many of whom are immigrants or first-generation Americans. Working beside them in this crisis has shown me just how vital these foreign-born doctors and health care workers are to keeping our community — and communities across the nation — healthy and safe.
The truth is, we’re facing a long, difficult road ahead of us. America is a country that produces high-quality phones, computers, cars and a service that can deliver a package to your house within hours of ordering it. So why doesn’t it have a health care system equipped to handle a pandemic of this magnitude quickly and efficiently? The lack of basic supplies and price gouging for equipment like masks is inappropriate; the CDC’s recommendation that doctors and health care professionals tie bandannas around our noses and mouths if masks are unavailable is like sending a soldier to war wearing flip flops because no more boots were available. But we’re also facing a dire physician shortage. Immigrants are crucial to filling these gaps. We are both twice as likely as the U.S.-born to be physicians and surgeons and to work as home health aides, according to the immigration nonprofit New American Economy. Unfortunately, some current policies, including the recent travel bans, have prevented more of us from entering the field.
I graduated from medical school in Sudan and worked as a physician before coming to the U.S. in 2016. But before I could practice here, I had to pass the three-step U.S. medical licensing exam and get accepted into a residency program. These high standards help make America a global leader in medicine. But the costs associated with these exams and the competition for training is prohibitive for many foreign-born doctors. Many in the medical community feel they’re unnecessarily restrictive, especially during a time when we so badly need their expertise.
It’s also extremely hard for foreign-born doctors to come or stay here after training. Currently, there is just one federal program, the Conrad 30 Waiver, aimed at allowing foreign-born doctors who completed residency training under J1 visa to continue practicing in the United States. It is extremely limited: Each state can allow just 30 doctors a year under tight restrictions. Some doctors can also receive exemptions from the cap on H-1B high-skilled worker visas, but again, the restrictions on this are tight and the expense for sponsoring employers is significant.
Then last month, as news of the coronavirus was beginning to spread, a new travel ban was issued that slammed the doors on countries that previously sent large numbers of health care professionals. Not only did it cancel the diversity lottery for Sudan, but it also restricted immigration from Nigeria. These are some of the well-educated immigrants in the U.S. More than 1 in 3 Nigerians are employed in health care, according to NAE. In addition to the nearly 6,000 who are doctors and physicians, more than 23,700 Nigerians are nurses and almost 13,000 are nursing assistants. As a doctor, I can’t stress enough how much America would benefit from the help these professionals could provide right now, regardless of their race or nationality. The coronavirus doesn’t discriminate between national origin — neither should America. And we will continue to need these workers when the crisis ends. In 2015, the most recent data available, at least one county in more than half of the 50 U.S. states was without a single physician. By 2023, we’ll be short nearly 122,000 physicians, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
The coronavirus has changed our lives profoundly. Please, continue to wash your hands, social distance yourself and stay home as much as possible. Please, don’t be in denial about how serious this threat is or what is required to end it. We need more supplies. We need leadership. We need policies that will secure our country a highly-skilled health care workforce. Our lives depend on it.
Tarig Elhakim is an internal medicine resident at Kendall Regional Medical Center in Miami, Florida.