Racism in Global Health: Tackling an UnGlobal System

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore clear disparities in infection rates, death rates, and access to diagnostics, vaccines, therapeutics, and care for black and brown communities. It’s a bleak reminder of the enduring inequity in global public health. As early as April 2020, one Brookings Institute article pointed out that the COVID-19 response does not take into account the fact that black individuals in predominantly white geographies are more likely to live in areas with ‘lack of healthy food options, green spaces, recreational facilities, lighting, and safety’, and that black people are more likely to live in densely populated areas.

Racism is also endemic in global health institutions, which are mainly populated with white, Global North leaders deciding how programmes should work for black and brown people in the Global South. In the words of Stephanie Kimou: “[A]t work, nobody looked like me. The person who started the nonprofit, the finance manager, the operations person — all white. All the major money and programmatic decisions — all made by white people being driven around in fancy cars and living in gated communities. It was so clearly neocolonialist.

In addition, COVID-19 tools are not well adapted to dark skin, with pulse oximeters showing misleading readings 12% of the time in persons with non-white skin. And contrary to what was expected, Global North responses to COVID-19 have not necessarily been the most efficacious nor the most effective. For example, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Sweden failed to adequately protect their populations, while global south countries such as Rwanda and Taiwan effectively instituted systems and deployed technologies to respond effectively to the pandemic. Yet in the Global Health Security Index, the United States and the United Kingdom were ranked first and second in the world in terms of pandemic preparedness. This underscores the need for us to decolonise and redefine global health and address existing power imbalances within global health structures and debates.

Matahari Global, with the support of Open Society Foundations, is working on research and advocacy to help catalyse change – to bring together black and brown expertise, to engage global health agencies in becoming actively anti-racist, and to produce descriptive research to document what racism in global health looks like and what can be done.