By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
November 16, 2020
When T&T gained independence in 1962 we reveled in the possibility that we had set ourselves upon a path to deal with the problems of colonialism, particularly the sinful racism, that had disfigured our society. In 1970, disappointed that Black people were still being denied jobs and position because of their color, the Black Power Rebellion added the struggle of anti-blackness to the national agenda.
Fifty years after independence, we are still plagued with racial discrimination even though it has taken a different dimension. In the 1970s we were faced with white over black racism, today it’s brown over black, the former having inculcated some of the nastiest racial biases of the white ruling class.
The recent incident between Dr. Avinash Sawh and one of his workers demonstrates this tendency clearly. Sawh owns Medical Associates in San Fernando which hires many workers. He decreed that anyone applying to be a nurse in his employ had to submit a photograph because “some of his East Indian patients did not want nurses of African descent treating them.”
Sawh also referred to African police officers as being “uneducated and dunce n……” He threatened to fire the affected worker if she considered reporting him to the Labor Board. On Wednesday Sawh apologized for his behavior promising that “in the future he would hire nurses based on their qualifications, and not their race.” I thought that was the law of the land.
A few months ago the Ministry of Health fired Dr. Dhelia Gabriel, a medical intern assigned to the Port of Spain General Hospital, “after a video surfaced on social media of her using racial slurs towards a patient and her colleagues” (November 13). She says the Ministry “took away her future” by that decision.
Dr. Fuad Khan, a former member of the Medical Board of Trinidad, “believes no disciplinary action can be taken against Sawh because his behavior is not clearly defined under the [Medical Board] Act.” He argues that the case between Gabriel and Sawh is different because “Sawh works for himself, therefore cannot be fired by the Ministry of Health” suggesting that racist behavior is permitted when it is committed in the private rather than the public sphere.
Under the circumstances, it would be all right if Sawh decided not to hire a Black medical doctor because an Indian patient says that she did not want a Black doctor to attend to her. It’s a private establishment. According, to Khan, this behavior would not be subject to disciplinary action because “his action is not exactly defined under the Medical Board Act.” I remind Khan that the whites in the southern USA and the apartheid regime in South Africa practiced this behavior in the dark ages of colonialism. The Medical Board of those countries supported these practices by the laws on its books.
T&T’s Medical Board was established in 1887 in the bowels of colonial (read white) Trinidad where racism was rampant. Its constitution was amended in 1961 and 1976. It says: “Any person who established to the satisfaction of the Council that he holds a diploma…and that he is of good character and a fit and proper person to practice medicine shall upon application…be entitled to be a member of the Board.”
While its constitution denies membership for many things (such as using a “false or fraudulent representation”), it never included the practice of racism as an infraction that can deny a doctor the right to practice medicine. In 2020 racism is defined as a crime against humanity.
Even in its backwardness, Section 24 (3) of the Medical Board Act notes: “If the Council finds, after due enquiry, that a medical practitioner is suffering from a physical or mental condition might, if he continues to practice, constitute a danger to the public or a patient, the Council may suspend the member from practicing until such time as the opinion of the Council such member is able to resume practice.”
Sawh, an Indo-Trinidadian entrepreneur, holds a medical license that the people of T&T, through its laws, allows him to practice his profession and conduct his business. Today Sawh’s mental and psychological condition prevents him from acting in the best interest of his patients and the people of Trinidad. His behavior exasperates the tension between the two groups and contributes to a racial divide that grows deeper each day.
The Medical Board exists within a larger society which holds that certain practices are harmful, even detrimental, to our wellbeing. The rules of such a body should conduce to the overall social and mental health of the society. Sawh should be relieved of his medical license immediately and his health institution investigated thoroughly because he violated our most sacred trust: the elimination of all forms of racism within our ranks.
I had hoped the UNC would have been the first political body to condemn Sawh’s behavior. At the time of writing nothing, except the voice of Khan, one of its members, has been heard from that body. As an Indian-based party, it has a greater stake in this issue than the PNM.
Martin Wolf writes: “A successful democracy is far more than a set of institutions. The state must be seen to serve the interests of most citizens. The latter must also share patriotism-a love of country that transcends differences of social positions, political belief and economic interests” (FT, November 11, 2020).
Dr. Sawh’s racism is detrimental to his patients and the society. Therefore, it is in the state’s best interest to deny Sawh the privilege of practicing medicine in the country. He is likely to do more harm than good if he is not reprimanded for his anti-human behavior.