Doctors say racism in global health responses needs to be confronted

CBC News

Montreal AIDS conference told current approach mostly benefits wealthy, majority white nations

CBC News · Posted: Aug 03, 2022 3:41 PM ET | Last Updated: August 3

A man wearing surgical gloves, a toddler on his father's knee. All three are African.

It's time for richer nations to change the way they deal with global health crises like COVID-19 and monkeypox, say some of the experts who attended the recent international AIDS conference in Montreal.

"It's about greed and it's about power and it's about a system that is deep-rooted in generations and millennia of racist attitudes — and sometimes a subconscious bias — that has now become the norm," said Dr. Ayoade Alakija, chair of the African Union's Vaccine Delivery Alliance.

"It's enough. Let us work together."

Alakija pointed out that African people are disproportionately affected by viral diseases and are used to test treatments.

"It is built in, and it is deliberate.… to use Africans and other people as experiments," she said, but "when it comes to providing access to that medication, we are excluded."

Dr. Madhukar Pai, professor of epidemiology and global health at McGill University, said often global health emergencies are not taken seriously until they affect white people.

"When this happens decade after decade after decade, there is no explanation on the planet except white supremacy and racism," he said, citing examples like AIDS, Ebola, COVID-19, and monkeypox. 

Responses to criticism

The co-chair of the International AIDS Society, Dr. Jean-Pierre Routy, responded to the appeals made by attendees of the conference by saying that there needed to be more dialogue around the inequalities in global health. 

"We try, but it's still difficult, but we need both to have dialogue, to have reconciliation," said Dr. Routy. 

Concerns about rising monkeypox cases and a lack of vaccine equity were front and centre at the annual International Aids Conference.

He said that meetings like the International AIDS conference were an important part of this process. 

Other delegates, such as Dr. Alakija, were less convinced. She pointed out that many delegates from Asian, South American and African countries had been forced to attend virtually due to their visas being denied. Their counterparts from wealthy European countries did not face similar obstacles. 

"It is glaring to the world that whilst many, many from the high-income countries, and from other parts of the world, have been allowed in to discuss an issue that concerns the most, we who it concerns the most, have been shut out." said Dr. Alakija.

"When it comes to having us at the table to discuss what concerns us the most, we are excluded."