Why Are We Here? : Code Switch Filipinos make up a small fraction of the nurses in the United States, but almost a third of the nurses who have died of COVID-19 in the U.S. have been of Filipino descent. So what exactly is going on? Our friends over at The Atlantic and WNYC tried to understand more about this troubling statistic by telling the story of one woman: Rosary Castro-Olega.

Why Are We Here?

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Hey, y'all. If you're anything like me, you've probably spent way too many nights on your couch, you know, scrolling through Twitter while simultaneously (laughter) watching Netflix and bored and listless, wishing there was something better to do.


Well, there is something better to do, at least for one night, because on April 15 CODE SWITCH is hosting a virtual live show. It starts at 8 p.m. Eastern, 5 p.m. Pacific. And it's going to be a lot of fun. There's going to be great conversations, listener questions that we answer, some poetry - April is Poetry Month - and a live DJ.

DEMBY: So big, big thanks out to my hometown public radio station WHYY for presenting this event. It's going to be very dope. So please, come kick it with us. You can get your tickets at whyy.org/codeswitch.

MERAJI: Again, that's whyy.org/codeswitch. Can't wait to see you there. All right. Now on to the show.


DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. And this is CODE SWITCH.



DEMBY: More than a half-million people have died from COVID-19 in the United States. As of when we're taping this episode, the death toll is at about 550,000, which is just a staggering, staggering number.

MERAJI: It is. And for those of you who are like me and are having a really hard time connecting with that number because it's so big to really wrap your head around, this might help. Most U.S. cities don't have that many residents. Or this, which helps me - Dodger Stadium has 56,000 seats. So that number is like filling up Dodger Stadium nearly 10 times over.

DEMBY: And because this number is so overwhelming, so difficult for all of us to comprehend, a couple of reporters decided to take a different approach. They took one COVID statistic, and they went deep.

MERAJI: And that stat is that while Filipino nurses make up 4% of all the nurses in the United States, they make up 31% of the deaths of nurses from COVID. And one of those nurses was Rosary Castro-Olega. Rosary came out of retirement at the start of the pandemic because she really wanted to help out. Her death from COVID was tragic, but her life wasn't. It was full of laughter, amazing friendships. She was a woman who loved to dance and sing.


DEMBY: Two reporters, Tracie Hunte and Gabrielle Berbey, produced and reported this story as part of "The Experiment" podcast from our friends at The Atlantic and WNYC.


TRACIE HUNTE: So I'm Tracie.

GABRIELLE BERBEY: And I'm Gabrielle.

HUNTE: And we kind of got into this story because of our family backgrounds. I'm from Barbados. My mom is a health care worker.

BERBEY: My family is from the Philippines. I also have a lot of nurses in my family.

HUNTE: And when you have family in health care, you worry about them in the middle of a pandemic. How are they doing right now? What are they worried about?

BERBEY: And while we were asking ourselves these questions and looking into it, we met a woman who had the same worries that we had.

: Hi. This is Jolene.

BERBEY: Jollene Levid.

JOLLENE LEVID: Mom, can you hear me? No?

HUNTE: Who was worried about her mom, Nora.

NORA LEVID: Can you hear me now?

J LEVID: Yes. Much better.

N LEVID: OK. My name is Nora Levid.

HUNTE: So Nora, she's a former nurse.

N LEVID: I've been a registered nurse for 41 years.

HUNTE: Jollene and her mom are Filipino. They live in LA. And in LA, Filipinos are everywhere in health care.

J LEVID: It's, like, from the security guards to patient transport, to the janitors, the LVNs, CNAs, cafeteria workers, nurses and doctors. You'll see Filipinos.

HUNTE: So Jollene's mom, Nora, was an ICU nurse for most of her career. And she was working in a clinic that was testing COVID patients up until October.

N LEVID: It's like it's hard to let go. So I kept pushing and pushing until they said, enough, mom.

J LEVID: What she's not telling you is that she should have retired almost three years ago.


J LEVID: So let's just tell the whole truth. So my mother should have been retired. She decided to help out during the pandemic. And, like, she always downplays it. She's like, oh, I just do paperwork. I'm like, Mom, you are in the clinic that they're testing patients for COVID in (laughter). That's not a retirement.


J LEVID: So that's why I was like, Mom, take care of your flowers, watch Korean dramas...


J LEVID: ...Stay home, sleep, you know? Like, come on. She's like, I'm going to be so bored. And then what am I going to do, just look at your dad? And I'm like just (laughter) - can you please just retire?


J LEVID: Please, just retire.

HUNTE: It's like, yes, yes. Look at dad. Look at dad.



HUNTE: So at the beginning of the pandemic, Jollene was worried about her mom and all her mom's friends, all these aunties who were also nurses, because she knew, given the nature of their work, that they were most likely to get exposed to COVID, especially because Nora used to work in intensive care.

N LEVID: Yeah. We knew it's going to get worse. In fact, I remember when I was in ICU, somebody call in sick. And we have this joke saying, oh, you cannot call in sick, not unless you're dead.


HUNTE: And last March, when COVID here in the U.S. started spreading like wildfire, their fears came true. One of Nora's friends, also a Filipino nurse, died of COVID. This death hit the community really hard.

N LEVID: Oh, my God. It's hitting home so close.

HUNTE: This was the first death of a health care worker in Los Angeles. And it would be the first of many, many more.

J LEVID: I started panicking, basically.

HUNTE: Jollene was freaking out because she felt that so many of the nurses dying of COVID, maybe too many of them, were Filipino. So she looked into it. And it turned out she was right. A very strange thing was happening. She found this piece of data.

J LEVID: Filipino nurses are 4% of total nurses in the U.S. but 31.5% of all nurse deaths.

HUNTE: Let me just say that again, Filipinos make up 4% of nurses in the U.S. but almost a third of nurse deaths from COVID.

J LEVID: That's not an accident.

HUNTE: Today, we try to solve this mystery. How did a single group of immigrants, Filipino Americans, end up becoming the most front line workers of all front line workers in the country's fight against COVID? I'm Tracie Hunte. And this is "The Experiment," a show about our unfinished country.


HUNTE: So to answer this question, we're going to start with the women who lost their friend last March, Nora, the ICU nurse, and her friends. They grew up in the Philippines in Manila in the '70s.

BERBEY: Can you tell me a little bit about what Manila was like at this time?

N LEVID: It's a busy city.


N LEVID: Just like New York. A lot of restaurants and bars open 24 hours.

HUNTE: Nora grew up there with her best friend, Gertrude.

GERTRUDE TAN: Gertrude Tan.

HUNTE: They met in kindergarten.

TAN: We're like sisters.

HUNTE: They grew up together, went to college together. And that's where they met Joyette Jagolino.

JOYETTE JAGOLINO: I was with Gertrude in the microbiology class. I joined their clique.

HUNTE: Their clique eventually grew to six women, several of them living together in a ratty apartment.

TAN: We were in a tiny apartment that one of the priests called a hole in the wall.

HUNTE: And they covered for each other when they were late for class. And they helped each other study.

N LEVID: We checked each other. Oh, did you finish studying this? Did you finish studying that?

JAGOLINO: We would pretend to be reading in the library. But we would all be napping.

HUNTE: When it came time to pick a profession, they all looked at each other.

N LEVID: What are you going to be? And she said, I don't know. What about you? I don't know (laughter).

HUNTE: And they kind of just picked nursing.

JAGOLINO: It wasn't this strong desire to be a nurse. It was sort of - I-fell-into-it kind of thing.

HUNTE: They were just doing what a lot of Filipino women were doing at that time. And listening to them talk about being teenagers and young adults just trying to figure out what to do next with their lives, it all sounds pretty typical. But in the Philippines at the time, it was actually kind of a scary moment...


HUNTE: ...Because when it was time for them to graduate, the Philippines was under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.


FERDINAND MARCOS: We will eliminate the threat of a violent overthrow of our republic.

HUNTE: And he was out here stealing from the Philippine economy.


MARCOS: We must now reform the social, the economic and political institutions in our country.

HUNTE: The country was headed towards a recession.


MARCOS: The proclamation of martial law is not a military takeover.

HUNTE: There was also, like, this crackdown on Marcos' political opponents. And so the whole country was under martial law.

JAGOLINO: Horrible. Horrible.

HUNTE: And so it just sounds like a really, really difficult time to be a young person who's, like, trying to make your way.

JAGOLINO: Dictatorship in the Philippines was getting really, really ramped up.

TAN: You know, staying in the Philippines at that time was not an option for me and for a lot of nurses.

HUNTE: So in order to have a future career, they realized that they would have to leave the country.

N LEVID: Your only option, if you want to help your family, is to go abroad.

JAGOLINO: And we took a united front.

HUNTE: And they decided that they would do it together.

JAGOLINO: The sisterhood would not be separated. That's when we made that decision.


HUNTE: So the sisterhood met a recruiter who was looking for nurses to go work at a hospital in the United States. And it was this hospital in Kansas City, Mo.

BERBEY: What have you heard about Missouri before you got there?

TAN: Nothing (laughter). I just know that it's a state (laughter).

N LEVID: It has four seasons. I'll be able to see the snow, blah, blah, blah.

HUNTE: So after graduation, they left.

TAN: On the plane, that's when it hit me. That's when I started crying.

N LEVID: It was sad, but it was reality for us. We have to face reality. So let's do it.

HUNTE: When they landed, they were taken straight to the hospital where they were going to work.

TAN: We were housed in the hospital, initially.

HUNTE: They were also going to live there, which is crazy.

TAN: They are patient rooms, but they were never used by patients. So it was on the upper level of the hospital.

HUNTE: You know, they cooked together. They hung out. They talked about boys.

JAGOLINO: Oh, boy (laughter).

TAN: We consoled each other if there was a breakup (laughter).

HUNTE: And late at night, they'd all get together in the hallway and have a little dance party.


JAGOLINO: "Saturday Night Fever" came out.

N LEVID: We would gather in one of the rooms. We would drink and dance together.

TAN: We'd kick our heels, and we would sing to the tune of Travolta.

JAGOLINO: We were all following with a pointy finger, just dancing up and down the hallway.

N LEVID: Through the night, until we're exhausted and drunk


JAGOLINO: No men were allowed upstairs. Can you imagine? Oh, my God. A bunch of Filipino nurses with, you know, orgies upstairs - that would have been the shocker in Missouri (laughter).


HUNTE: The girl crew, they eventually all moved to Los Angeles, and there's a huge Filipino community there. And that's where they met a new friend - Rosary. She was also a nurse, also Filipina.

Can you tell me about when you met Rosary Castro-Olega?

TAN: Oh, Rosary - how did I meet Rosary? Of course, she was the kind of person that likes going to Filipino parties.

HUNTE: Was there something that stuck out about her that made you think that, oh, yeah, she has to become part of our crew?

TAN: She's just there (laughter).

JAGOLINO: We just loved her. She loved to dance.

TAN: She will dance. Like, she'd go low, low, low, low. When you go low, she goes very low.

JAGOLINO: She's, like, getting down on the floor. And you would just see her, like, pounding the floor.

TAN: She will sing anything - kind of out of tune, but she will sing. That's Rosary. She's a happy person, a very happy person.

HUNTE: They were just, like, trying to adjust to life in a new country. There would be light moments with their accents, like...

TAN: Medication was pronounced differently. There's a medication called digoxin.

HUNTE: Gertrude had this moment where the lab called her.

TAN: The lady on the phone said, this is the lab; I have the Jackson level (ph) for you. I said, what? Is there a medication called Jackson, like Michael Jackson?

HUNTE: And she thought that they were talking about Michael Jackson but realized they were talking about a medication that they just pronounced differently in the Philippines.

TAN: (Laughter) She just laughed, and she said, no, it's digoxin.

JAGOLINO: And if you can't communicate correctly, then people get mad at you, and you are labeled dumb.


HUNTE: A lot of these experiences were funny, but some were really hard. They were still new immigrants in a new country, and adjusting was difficult. They told us about this one moment in Missouri, for instance, where it hit them.

TAN: We didn't have enough mufflers and gloves.

HUNTE: They just did not have the right clothes to keep themselves warm.

N LEVID: We would be crying (laughter).

JAGOLINO: My bones were frozen, and I thought, I could die in this country and no one would even know it.


JAGOLINO: So that was the moment of - what the hell am I doing here?


HUNTE: I think a lot of immigrants have probably had this moment where they look around and ask themselves, why are we here?

N LEVID: Why did we come here?

HUNTE: But for these women in particular, why these women came to this specific country with all these other Filipina nurses who'd made the exact same journey, only to end up on the front lines of this country's pandemic? It turns out there were some reasons why that were beyond their control.


HUNTE: That's after the break.


HUNTE: So Gabrielle Berbey and I have been looking into this question of how it came to be that so many Filipino nurses ended up in the United States.

BERBEY: Yeah, why do they come here? The answer feels obvious, which was to support their families back home and escape the Marcos dictatorship. But we kept running into, like, a deeper why of - why are so many Filipino nurses in the United States? And like, how did this whole girl gang that we've come to know get recruited to work in Missouri?

CATHERINE CENIZA CHOY: Yeah, that's a complex question about...

BERBEY: We called professor of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley, Catherine Ceniza Choy.

CHOY: Please call me Cathy.

BERBEY: So Cathy is Filipino American, and she wrote this book, "Empire Of Care," about Filipino nurse migration to the United States. And she told us that the story of Nora, Gertrude and Joyette coming to the United States as nurses - it's part of a much larger history that actually goes back to 1898.

CHOY: I think there are a number of myths that are associated with the relationship between the United States and the Philippines.

BERBEY: So a lot of people don't know that the Philippines was a territory of the United States, like American Samoa, Puerto Rico and Guam.

CHOY: The U.S. liberated the Philippines from traditional colonizers like Spain.

BERBEY: When the U.S. took the Philippines from Spain, they didn't say, like, we're going to colonize the Philippines. They actually used this term...

CHOY: Benevolent assimilation.

BERBEY: We're going to benevolently assimilate the Philippines into the United States, which is just, like, colonizing.

CHOY: This characterized U.S. colonialism as one of friendship, and so Filipinos are often portrayed as, quote-unquote, "little brown brothers."

BERBEY: So we're going to civilize them not for our own benefit, but for their benefit.

CHOY: It's part of the ideology of U.S. Manifest Destiny.

BERBEY: And part of that civilizing meant training Filipinos in health care.


CHOY: And they pointed to the presence of disease and, quote-unquote, "primitive, dirty, uncivilized ways" of Filipinos. The Philippines needed Americans to colonize and uplift them, specifically through the lens of health care. They established nursing schools and actively recruited Filipino women specifically and actively discouraged Filipino men from entering the profession.

BERBEY: So for decades, all of these nurses in the Philippines are being trained in Americanized nursing schools. And they speak English, and they can actually function in American hospitals, but it's not until the 1960s that we actually start to see a big wave of Filipino nurses migrating to the United States. The U.S. started to experience nursing shortages, partly because of feminism. For the first time, there was a movement of American women who wanted to be lawyers and doctors rather than just these support roles in health care. The U.S. was like, oh, well, in the Philippines, we have all of these American-trained nurses, and they speak English, so let's just recruit nurses from there. And one of the reasons hospitals could recruit so easily was because of a historic immigration bill.


LYNDON B. JOHNSON: This bill says simply that from this day forward, those wishing to immigrate to America shall be admitted on the basis of their skills.

BERBEY: The 1965 Immigration Act gave preference to immigrants with special skills like nursing.


JOHNSON: Those who can contribute most to this country - to its growth, to its strength, to its spirit - will be the first that are admitted to this land.

BERBEY: This is how Filipinos came to be the largest immigrant group to work in American nursing. And it's why the sisterhood came here.

N LEVID: It's hard work.

HUNTE: Gertrude, Joyette, Nora - they spent their careers doing this really hands-on work in ICUs, PICUs, transplant teams. And for decades, Filipino nurses had been specifically recruited into these kinds of roles, so they're concentrated in critical care.

TAN: Lucky for me, I developed that love for nursing.

HUNTE: Gertrude and Joyette told us about these intense moments in their work.

TAN: Before a code blue situation, you're talking to a patient, and then all of a sudden, he rolls his eyes up. What are you going to do?

JAGOLINO: I saw the baby - little baby - was blue. Her mouth was foaming. I suctioned her mouth and applied oxygen.

TAN: So you do everything. You know, you call code blue. Everybody's in there. You run around.

JAGOLINO: I started breathing for the baby.

TAN: And then you see a heartbeat on the monitor.

JAGOLINO: And the baby pinked up.

TAN: It's like, oh, my God, this is so good. It's - you feel like you've changed something. You changed the course. You changed tragedy (ph). You changed this person's life.

HUNTE: This is, like, the kind of bedside-care work. Like, this is - like, if you've ever been in a hospital, this is the nurse who's, like, making sure you have all your medication. They help you go to the bathroom sometimes. They're, like, right there doing this really intimate, hard work. And during the pandemic, they're the ones who were, like, right there on the front lines because, very often, they were the nurses who sat at the bedside of patients as they died of coronavirus alone in the hospitals. I came to sort of think of them as, like, you know, there's front line workers and then there's front line of the front line workers. And that's these nurses, which takes us back to Rosary.

TAN: She worked so hard.

N LEVID: Her body was used to just work, work, work.

HUNTE: When the pandemic hit, Rosary was working directly with COVID patients.

TAN: The next news I heard about her was that she and her two children has COVID.

N LEVID: One of the daughters called and said she was admitted to the hospital, eventually became intubated.

JAGOLINO: And she said, mom's not going to make it. We're sending voicemail clips to say goodbye to Rosary. And that was the hardest. That was the hardest to do.

HUNTE: Yeah.

JAGOLINO: You had to compose yourself to say something to a machine in order to be played over the PA system into her room because there was no one in her room. No one. How fair is that? It infuriates me. It infuriates me when we get to the political situation of it. Whether or not she was Filipino and she was at risk to begin with, whether or not there was, you know, the preference to put the Filipinos up front - you know what? That's water under the bridge now. She's gone. She's gone.


HUNTE: When Rosary died, her friends, they weren't really wondering why she died. Thinking about why Rosary died wasn't going to bring her back.

J LEVID: I'm on the phone hearing my mom list off her friends that are passing away from COVID. And I'm like, there's something missing.

HUNTE: But for Jolene, who is watching her mother and her mother's friends go to work and watching them grieve Rosary and say goodbye to her, she did want to know why.

J LEVID: And you wonder a few things, you know? Was this on purpose? Was this on purpose? It's not a coincidence that Filipinos here are in the ICUs and the ERs. It's just a fact. They disproportionately serve in those high-risk departments.

HUNTE: There are a lot of reasons that can begin to explain why so many Filipino nurses died in the U.S. pandemic. There are the historical reasons and the economic reasons that brought them to this country in the first place. There are even some cultural factors that Filipino nurses told us about. They weren't always given proper PPE. And they didn't always feel comfortable demanding it for themselves. A group of researchers, mostly Filipino, are just now picking apart all this COVID data to put numbers to these reasons. But there's also this big what-if. What if history had been different?

J LEVID: I sometimes wonder what happens if we got to stay home? What if my grandma didn't have to migrate? How would that improve people's lives in the Philippines if poverty and other reasons beyond your control didn't push you to leave your home?

HUNTE: And after her Auntie Rosary died, Jolene decided she would start tracking some data herself. She and some of her friends put up a website, Kanlungan, where they list every obituary of a Filipino health care worker they can find. Rosary's was the first on the site. And when I was talking to Rosary's friend, Joyette, I couldn't stop thinking about the sisterhood sitting on the plane back in 1977 and the ideas they must have had about what this country could be. I'm an immigrant to this country, too. And one thing I can't stop thinking about is the fact that, you know, as immigrants, you come to the United States for, you know, a "better life," quote-unquote.


HUNTE: And this experience has been so wild to me because it's like, no, but this is America. Like, you know, has your thinking about America changed a lot because of this experience?

JAGOLINO: Yes. We actually - you know, my husband and I and a couple of friends, we said, OK, do we go back home (laughter), you know? Do we consider getting our Filipino passports back to get dual citizenship or consider Canada? We talked about it. It is a disappointment, but my children are here, so we'll get through this. We will get through this. But this kind of shook the living daylights out of us. And you want to believe that it's still a great place to live, you know? It should still be a great place to live if we could get our act together. But from an immigrant, yes, it is a disappointment to look back and say, what happened? What just - what happened?


HUNTE: I think for me, it's like, what do we owe these Filipino nurses who we depend so much on? And I think that that's why Rosary's story - it's just, like, very haunting to me. Though what we do know is that people's lives are influenced by, you know, these really big historical economic forces that are very often out of their control. But to people like Rosary and Gertrude and Nora, it's just their life.


TAN: Rosary Celaya Castro-Olega, 63, passed away Sunday, March 29, 2020. Rosary was a caring and genuine individual who would put others before herself.

N LEVID: Even if she finished a 12-hour shift at the hospital, she enjoyed life to the fullest, doing what she wanted and went for it.

TAN: When it came to dancing, she danced like there was no tomorrow.

N LEVID: One of her favorite celebrities in the world was Kobe Bryant.

TAN: Funeral services have not been planned due to social distancing and the occurrence of the horrific coronavirus. Plans to celebrate Rosary's beautiful life will be sent out once this pandemic has ended. Tribute by Rosary's daughter, Tiffany Olega.


MERAJI: On our recent episode, "Screams And Silence," we talked about anti-Asian racism, and we also talked about the history of Asian American activists working alongside Black activists in the ongoing fight for equal rights. Our friends on the Throughline podcast have an episode that drops on Thursday, April 1, where they discuss the life of one of those Asian American activists, the late civil rights leader Yuri Kochiyama.


YURI KOCHIYAMA: On the walls. I have all my heroes - Malcolm X, Fidel Castro, Patrice Lumumba, Che Guevara, Assata Shakur, all the people in my family, every one of them.

MERAJI: Yuri Kochiyama was known for saying, I can't be free if you're not free. Listen to Throughline's newest episode all about her life. Now back to the credits for the wonderful episode of "The Experiment" that you've been listening to.

NATALIA RAMIREZ, BYLINE: This episode of "The Experiment" was reported and produced by Tracie Hunte and Gabrielle Berbey, with editing by Julia Longoria and Katherine Wells, fact-checked by William Brennan and Stephanie Hayes, sound design by David Herman, music by Tasty Morsels. Our team also includes Emily Botein, Matt Collette, Alvin Melathe and me, Natalia Ramirez. We're still a pretty new podcast. So if you like what you heard, tell a friend to listen to the show. And don't forget to write and review us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to this episode. "The Experiment" is a co-production of The Atlantic and WNYC Studios. Thanks for listening.

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