Credit: Guy RD /

Migrants have played a key role in the NHS ever since its creation. Today 1 in 6 people working in the NHS has a non-British nationality. And many others are the children and grandchildren of migrant healthcare workers, forging multi-generational legacies. Many found themselves working on the frontlines of the Covid-19 pandemic and a disproportionate number lost their lives.

NHS workers were painted as heroes during the pandemic. But the day-to-day experience was far more complicated. For the large number of foreign-born and minority ethnic workers across the healthcare sector, it was a time of pride – but also of confusion and exhaustion, and concern for their patients, families and friends.

As a South Asian pregnant woman, I thought who would listen to me and take on my concerns? I’ve realised if you scream loud enough and for long enough, someone will hear you.

Arrived from Gibraltar via Czech Republic in 2018

“In March, when the pandemic hit us, my husband was one of the first doctors to speak up about the need for appropriate PPE for doctors. And then, doctors started to die because they weren’t given the right protection. For some time I kept quiet because I was worried about my pregnancy and my maternity pay. I was in A&E at the time. I didn’t get a risk assessment. Their argument at the time was that there wasn’t enough evidence to show that pregnant women could get affected by Covid.

Nurse Mary Agyapong was in the same hospital as my husband. Eight months pregnant, she caught Covid at work and had to deliver her baby via emergency c-section and died in ITU. That’s when I decided to take my protest to Downing Street. To remind all the politicians about the rights of our healthcare workers.

My father came from the slums of Delhi to Gibraltar. He didn’t have anyone to help or support him. If he was being racially abused, no one spoke up for him. This is what I’ve seen with migrant doctors and nurses here – they feel afraid of speaking up. A lot of them have left everything behind in their home countries. Maybe their job depends on a visa and they’re afraid of losing their job. It doesn’t feel right with me that they have to suffer in silence. My parents went through that.”

I had a night shift with one of my colleagues who was coughing constantly. A few days later, I got tested and found out I was positive for Covid.

DR Elif Ezgi
Arrived from Turkey in 2016

“The first few weeks of the Covid pandemic were quite chaotic. Nobody knew what to do. Back then the advice was that you don’t have to wear masks. We were told it’s okay if you wash hands and keep your distance from the patient, which is practically impossible because you have to examine them. I wasn’t able to sleep; it was quite stressful.

I had a night shift with one of my colleagues who was coughing constantly. A few days later, I got tested and found out I was positive for Covid. Then my husband started with the symptoms. Thankfully we recovered quickly. I’m now back at work, doing 12-hour shifts. When you have children and a family it’s not very easy. I feel guilty about not being a good enough mother, a good enough doctor,  a good enough everything.”

We lost four clients to Covid-19. When you work with residents, you get to know them personally. Emotionally it was very difficult. They couldn’t see their loved ones during their last minutes. We tried to use video conferencing to help them speak to their relatives, but it was heartbreaking."

Arrived from Rwanda in 2002

In the face of unprecedented challenges and enormous uncertainty, NHS workers from around the world got on with their jobs...

Fighting On Two Fronts

The Singh Twins

Digital mixed medium

“Inspired largely by media coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK, the work essentially pays tribute to NHS and other front-line healthcare workers. But as artists who see ourselves as social political commentators, we also present a satirical look at the government’s handling of the crisis, whilst challenging notions of Britishness.”

The work was filmed for The Singh Twins’ appearance as guest artists on the final episode of the Channel 4 series Grayson’s Art Club in June 2020.

Artwork copyright The Singh Twins:

Singh Twins Artwork

"Special emphasis is given to the invaluable role of and additional risk to BAME carers working within the health sector. This is placed within the wider context of Britain's historical dependency on people of BAME origin through a detail of Britannia denoting a British Empire and prosperity built on the blood, sweat and tears of people from 'foreign' lands which were colonised and exploited - both in terms of labour and resources."

— The Singh Twins

"Through another detail in the artwork, this emphasis on the contribution of BAME communities (many of whom are immigrants or of immigrant descent) serves to expose the irony of an anti-immigrant Brexit campaign."

— The Singh Twins

"Central to the artwork is the figure of an Asian nurse on horseback slaying the Covid-19 dragon which reinterprets traditional images of St George."

— The Singh Twins

Next Chapter

Looking to the future