Growing up in San Diego, I was highly aware of the Filipino community. At times, some Japanese Americans warned that I should guard against getting too dark–I might be mistaken for a Filipina. That may seem inconsequential now, but it’s an important reminder of how the Philippines and the US are historically intertwined. “The First Wave” further reminds us that Filipinos have a place in this pandemic.
Although now the Philippines is a Republic and independent nation, it has been a colony, first under the Spanish. When the United States won the Spanish-American War (1898) the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam were ceded to the US by Spain. Then there was a Philippine-American War (1899-1902). From 1902 until the Japanese invasion in 1942, the Philippines was part of the United States. Filipinos were not restricted from immigrating into the United States by the Immigration Act of 1917 as were other Asians, because they were U.S. Nationals.
Filipinos have a much longer history in the US, partially due to Spanish colonialism. Filipinos living in New Orleans fought under the command of General Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812. In this respect, the Filipinos were the first wave of Asian Pacific Islanders to be part of the US. And yet, they even when they were US Nationals, they were still perceived as foreigners, not unlike the Puerto Ricans portrayed in “West Side Story.” On the West Coast, they were subjected to lynching, not unlike the Chinese immigrants.
The documentary, “The First Wave” isn’t about immigration, but it is about minorities and a Filipino family are central to the story. Shot over four months at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City, the documentary takes place inside the Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens. Queens County is 47.8 percent White, 20 percent Black or African American, 26.9 percent Asian and 28.2 percent Hispanic or Latino. The percentage of people who are White alone and not Hispanice or Latino are only 24.9 percent. The residents who are foreign-born are 47.2 percent. This is an area rich with diversity and immigrants.
Director Matthew Heineman (“Cartel Land”) has said that he didn’t think the filming would go on for more than a month. He observes what happens as a mere observer and what we see isn’t pretty. We follow Dr. Nathalie Dougé as she faces this unknown diseased, her frustration is clearly visible. Born and raised in the Bronx, she is a first-generation Haitian American. She doesn’t understand and is overwhelmed. Dougé, who is African American, is also struck by the unnecessary death of George Floyd. Floyd’s cry for help, “I can’t breath,” is echoed in the desperation of her patients. There’s also nurse Kellie Wunsch, who volunteered to be on the rapid response team, and physical therapist Karl Arabian who worked to help COVID-19 survivors recover.
But Philippine-born Brussels Jabon was a reminder of the place Filipinos hold in the healthcare. Licensed since 2016, Brussels is from a family of nurses–her parents, husband and sister are all nurses. In the spring of 2020, Brussels was pregnant with her second child when she contracted COVID-19 and required an emergency C-section. More than anyone, this family is aware of protocols and care, but still COVID-19 came knocking at their home.
The documentary doesn’t deal with many statistics. You can get that elsewhere. In case you’re wondering, Filipino nurses make up only 4 percent of registered nurses in the United States according to the National Nurses United. Yet 26.4 percent of the nurses who have died from complications of COVID-19 in the US were Filipino. Living on the West Coast, particularly in areas where the Asian American population may be large such as Torrance (36 percent) or San Diego (16.7 percent) might skew your perspective.
“The First Wave” is not particularly political as “In the Same Breath” where we see and hear the alarming rhetoric coming from both Mainland Chinese and US political leaders. There are no talking heads in Heineman’s documentary. Instead, Heineman goes for personal. The camera connects with patients and caretakers on a physically close level. We aren’t just getting a close up of the face, but focusing in on the eyes.
While I believe this is an important documentary for all US residents to see, this had been hard for me to write about. I witnessed someone dying alone, totally isolated from loved one–not because of any anti-social personality traits nor distance. It is pandemic protocol that bring death in somber loneliness.
With the rise of anti-Asian American violence, the Asian American community is reminded that we are not totally accepted as citizens because of our faces. That goes for the group of Pacific Islanders who have been in the US before the Battle of 1812, who have served in the frontlines of wars and are now in the frontlines of the pandemic, who were, in California, like the Chinese–a greater target for lynching than Black or African Americans. Small wonder that some other Asian American groups took pains not to look like the another.
That’s one of the important aspects of “The First Wave,” that it shows the diversity on the East Coast and gives a human face to Asian American nurses. “The First Wave” combined with “In the Same Breath” gives a rounded idea of hospitals and their patients during what is essentially the same time period as we enter a new wave with a new variant in a world that has become more clearly interconnected.