Top Issue 1-2024

27 April 2000 Edition

Resize: A A A Print

Britain's racist medics


Old racial stereotypes, even in supposedly multicultural Britain are, it seems, proving as difficult as ever to shift. The latest great British institution to be officially branded ``institutionally racist'' is the medical profession. The third report of the Social Security Select Committee of the House of Commons, which was published on 19 April, has called for an investigation by the Commission for Racial Equality into the way benefits claimants are treated by the Benefits Agency's Medical Services, the body which assesses sickness and disability benefit claims.

The report found that doctors routinely ``made inappropriate references to claimants' ethnic origins'' in their assessments and accused many physicians of ``cultural insensitivity''. It cited the example of one doctor who blankly refused repeated requests to remove his shoes when entering an Asian household, resulting in the medical assessment having to be carried out in the hallway, and of another who refused an application on the supposition that the claimant was able to kneel when he went to prayer in his local mosque. In fact, the individual concerned was obliged to sit on a chair throughout prayers. Other abuses recorded in the report reveal quite shocking ignorance on the part of doctors and included one claimant referred to as ``a pleasant negro lady'' as well as refusals to provide female doctors for female patients and the failure to provide interpreters where necessary.

Predictably, this stereotyping of ethnic groups also extends to the Irish community. Indeed, the report noted that ``there is a particular problem with racial stereotyping of Irish clients'', noting one particular case where ``a doctor made allusions to an Irish claimant's alleged alcoholism, when in fact there was no evidence that the claimant was a drinker, let alone an alcoholic'', and another of a doctor ``asking an Irish client if he had a drink problem and being unwilling to believe the client (who is a diabetic and doesn't drink at all) when he said he did not drink''.

The report severely criticises the lack of appropriate training given to doctors in both their general attitudes towards ethnic minorities and the language they use in their assessments. It recommends that those ``who demonstrate cultural insensitivity should receive immediate remedial training'' and that those doctors failing to improve their performance after such action has been taken be sacked.

The investigation reveals how deeply ingrained racism is in much of British life, despite the fact that British culture has always been quick to absorb - or simply rob - the aspects of other cultures it considers `safe' and economically rewarding; music, fashion, food and so on. It remains to be seen whether the recommendations contained within it will be implemented, given that so many other aspects of government also stand accused of institutional racism; the Metropolitan Police and the Home Office to name but two. It also comes at a time when a vicious media campaign against refugees is being waged, overtly racist new immigration legislation has been introduced, and opposition leader William Hague has unashamedly stated his desire to see all asylum seekers and immigration applicants put into detention camps.

Brits sue MoD

The British Ministry of Defence is being sued for medical negligence by around 280 former servicemen for its alleged failure to recognise and properly treat the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It faces possible damages costs running into hundreds of millions of pounds, as other ex-soldiers are expected to launch further proceedings. Legal representatives for the men who took part in the conflicts in the Falklands, Gulf and Six Counties claim that many of their clients have suffered severe psychological ill-effects as a consequence of their experiences, often becoming depressed, violent and turning to alcohol and drug abuse.

It has to be said, however, that this PTSD seems to be highly selective. Broadly speaking, British soldiers seem to suffer the greatest degree of trauma, aside from dangers to their own personal safety, in respect of other British soldiers. The routine and barbaric oppression or even indiscriminate slaughter of the enemy's civilian population does not seem to pose too many difficulties for most of them. The members of the Parachute Regiment who took part in the murder of civilians on Bloody Sunday, for instance, do not appear to have been traumatised by the experience; on the contrary, there is evidence that they exulted in the day's events. Nor does Lee Clegg appear to have been unduly upset by his own experience of killing, and the same is true of Guardsmen Fisher and Wright, the killers of Peter McBride, currently on peace-keeping duties in Kosovo.

It is also notable that a significant number of those claiming damages are veterans of the Gulf War. I may be wrong, but as I recall, 99.9% of the carnage of that particular imperialist adventure was suffered by the Iraqi army, and that was overwhelmingly inflicted through the use of air power. Indeed, almost all the British casualties (which amounted to no more than a few dozen) were caused by gung-ho American bomber pilots and so-called `friendly fire'. Nevertheless, Shaun Rusling, chairman of the National Gulf Veterans and Families Association, quotes the statistic that 200 British Gulf War veterans, having ``lost the plot'', are currently in prison, and that seven out of ten of their families have suffered divorce. This is, he insists, all down to PTSD brought about by the horrors of war, but given that the said horrors were rather limited on the British side it could equally be argued that it reflects at least as much on the general psychological calibre of the average squaddie as on any tangible trauma. Whilst, as former British soldier and writer Ally Renwick has argued, being in the British army is very often not compatible to good mental health, there seems to be a total inability on the part of veterans' campaigners to admit that many soldiers who end up on the wrong side of the law do so because they are just plain bad.

The 40 Welsh Guardsmen who were trapped on the Sir Galahad warship when it was destroyed by Argentinian forces in 1982 during the Falklands conflict may seem to have a less implausible claim. Seeing 50 people burn to death must necessarily leave its mental scars, even if there are no physical ones. But still, it has been observed that members of the emergency services, particularly fire fighters, are faced with similarly terrifying and disturbing sights on a regular basis and - so far anyway - they have not queued up to claim compensation for what amounts to doing the job for which they volunteered.

There seems to be little doubt that many former soldiers do experience adverse psychological effects as a result of their time in the British army, even if they are predisposed to violence in the first place, and even if it is the army itself which, by design, brings out the worst characteristics in them. But the MoD has thus far dismissed the claims, saying that it knew nothing of PTSD at the time of either the Falklands or Gulf War, even though psychiatric and medical research into its symptoms goes back to the First World War.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1