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Panelists decry healthcare’s racist and colonial history

Some of the panelists, from left, Tinuke Awe, Annabel Sowemimo and host Dr. Sujitha Selvarajah. (Anjola Fashawe/YJI)

LONDON – Healthcare experts and campaigners are calling for decolonization within the medical industry. 

Annabel Sowemimo, a researcher and author in the UK, led a discussion on decolonizing healthcare and addressing racism in the medical industry, inspired by her book Divided, which was released April.

The London-based ‘Wellcome Collection,’ – a free museum and library that aims to challenge perceptions on health with a focus on medicine, art and science – organized the event.

“We urgently need to address the colonial history of healthcare,” said Sowemimo. 

Sowemimo highlighted the dominance of white, middle-class doctors within the industry and how health institutions have been shaped by imperialism. 

Tinuke Awe, a health advocate for Black women, cited a report on Black maternal experiences in the UK that included a case of racial prejudice by medical professionals. 

The report documented a pregnant Black woman’s experience in which doctors attributed her pain and discomfort to her “African pelvis,” downplaying her concerns and dismissing her experience.

‘‘I was just shocked,’’ said Awe, adding how racism within the medical industry shouldn’t be normalized. 

‘‘Decolonization is a verb, a doing word,” said Awe. 

Writer Kimberley McIntosh emphasized the ‘‘disastrous consequences’’ that these assumptions hold, not only in the medical industry, but also in the workplace. 

‘’It’s about resistance,’’ said author Jacqueline Roy, adding how racism in the industry ‘‘stems from misunderstandings and cultural differences.’’ 

But these assumptions are not something people can change alone, according to Sowemimo. 

‘‘It actually requires huge changes in mental health professionals and health professionals generally,” said Sowemimo. 

“I really believe in altruism and human kindness,’’ said Sowemimo, adding, ‘’I believe that we can heal collectively.’’ 

Roy agreed, saying it has to be ‘‘a collective enterprise.’’

Sowemimo emphasized the need for ‘health equity’ to ensure fair treatment in healthcare.

Awe mentioned the importance of an intersectional approach in the medical industry, highlighting her experience of having an autistic Black son. 

Awe and Sowemimo agreed that the lack of diverse images on health websites has ‘‘deep reaching consequences’’ by ignoring a global majority of people. 

“If our experiences are not heard, they aren’t seen as valid,’’ said Roy. 

Sowemimo highlighted the impact of these prejudices spreading globally, focusing on how poorer countries with ethnically diverse populations failed to secure vaccinations during the pandemic 

Science is influenced by social context, according to Sowemimo, who highlighted how race science and eugenics have impacted the medical industry. 

“It’s about moving forward,’’ said Awe.

“We need to address the racial inequalities in medicine,” said Sowemimo, adding, ‘‘only then can we hope to build a system that is more equitable for everyone.’’

Anjola Fashawe is a Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

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