The impact of racism on our health and healthcare system

Monday June 22 2020

Activists attend a Black Lives Matter

Activists attend a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Hyde Park in in London on June 12, 2020. - Britain has seen days of protests sparked by the death in police custody of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in the United States.  AFP 

By Chris Peterson

A friend of mine Amos, a Tanzanian who is currently residing in United States, last week shared his heart-breaking experience with me about his visit to a walk-in medical facility for emergency care following a sudden painful medical condition.

According to him, the emergency staff didn’t pay attention he required when he arrived.

Amos says, “They treated me like I was trying to play them, an outsider. They neither helped me nor listened to me. All they wanted is to get rid of me.”

Amos said that he received all that because he’s black and the majority of all emergency staff in that hospital were white and they were only paying attention to white patients, and he felt really disgusted by it.

Let me start with paying tribute and remember so many who have been stolen from their families and communities as a direct result of rampant white supremacy, anti-blackness, and police violence.

My heart goes to George Floyd, 46, who died after being arrested by police outside a shop in Minneapolis, Minnesota.


Footage of the arrest on 25 May shows a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeling on Mr Floyd’s neck while he was pinned to the floor and eventually murdered.

Protests began as the video of the arrest was shared widely on social media.

Millions of demonstrators took to the streets all over the world and vandalise police cars and the police station with graffiti.

Back to Amos’s story, I personally was feeling for him during our conversation on the phone because we, doctors, take an oath to treat all patients equally, and yet this shows not all patients are treated equally.

The answer to why is complicated.

A new survey conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health asked members of different ethnic and racial groups about their experiences with discrimination.

Ninety-two per cent of African-American respondents said they felt discrimination against African-Americans exists in the US today.

All of this discrimination can literally be deadly, according to Harvard professor David Williams, who has spent years studying the health effects of discrimination.

He tells NPR’s Michel Martin: “Basically what we have found is that discrimination is a type of stressful life experience that has negative effects on health similar to other kinds of stressful experiences.”

In addition, we know that our own subconscious prejudices, also called implicit bias, can affect the way we treat patients.

Basically, there are so many layers and levels to this issue, it’s hard to wrap our heads around it.

What happened in US shows clearly that racism and white supremacy is a public health crisis and it can be contagious to the rest of the world, including here in Tanzania in a unique way. This is not news.

Racism doesn’t just cost our lives, but can negatively affect us emotionally and pose serious and permanent psychological effects.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) should come up with structural policy to fight racism. It’s about time, racism should be declared as global health concern, since it has very serious negative impacts in healthcare.

While we healthcare workers work day and night, racists claim a lot of innocent people’s lives for nothing.

To fight racism and discrimination, we all need to recognise, name, and understand these attitudes and actions.

I urge WHO to make it to be a part of medical education, as well as institutional policy. We need to practice and model tolerance, respect, be open-minded, and be at peace with each other.

I am Tanzanian, but I believe, what is happening in the US right now may directly or indirectly affect us all - socially, emotionally and most importantly medically as what happened to my friend Amos.

The author is a medical doctor based in Dar es Salaam.