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HEALTH: Sick of Racism

Gustavo Capdevila

GENEVA, Oct 21 2004 (IPS) - U.S. doctors, including prestigious physicians, in the mid-19th century gave the name “drapetomia” to a supposed “mental illness” that they believed drove certain black slaves to try to escape the plantations where they worked.

That concept, which has now been relegated to the category of the absurd, was presented as an illustration of the relationship between racism and health, one of the issues discussed this week in Geneva by a specialised United Nations body.

The Intergovernmental Working Group on the Effective Implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action ends its two-week session on the issues of “health and racism” and “the Internet and racism” Friday.

The Durban Declaration on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance was approved in 2001 in that South African city, in an international conference that the U.S. and Israeli delegations walked out of, in protest against language contained in the draft declaration.

The “drapetomia” anecdote “sounds surrealistic but in fact it is tragic,” said Benedetto Saraceno, director of the World Health Organisation (WHO) department of mental health.

Many psychiatrists in the past believed that certain populations or “races” were more predisposed to mental health problems.


But “science has proved that there is no such thing as race, that race is an artificial construct,” said Saraceno.

He observed, however, that “The notion that race predicts our moral character and intellectual capacity, etc. is still alive and well. Many persist in trying to attribute behavioural and mental disorders to certain groups of people.”

Specific ethnic groups are still seen as more inclined to violent or criminal behaviour, just as some people continue to believe that Native Americans or aborigines “are biologically predisposed to alcoholism and gambling,” Saraceno added.

On the contrary, he said, mental illness does not discriminate, and is highly prevalent within all ethnic groups and populations, without regard to race or ethnicity.

It is true that certain populations, such as minorities, refugees, asylum-seekers or immigrants, “bear a disproportionate burden” of mental health problems like alcohol or drug abuse, or suicides, he acknowledged.

But the cause is not their “race” but their “socioeconomic status and diminished enjoyment of full citizenship,” said the WHO official.

To confront the consequences of these disparities, health policies and programmes must incorporate an anti-discrimination focus, said the delegates of countries taking part in the working group’s session.

Paul Hunt, the special rapporteur on the right to health designated by the U.N. Human Rights Commission, recommended that countries adopt policies that are even more ambitious than those outlined by the Durban Declaration.

In the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, the world’s governments agreed on broad national plans to fight these problems, although compliance has proved difficult.

With respect to the issue of “racism and health”, for example, Hunt suggested that governments orient their policies by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which sets more far-reaching goals for health questions.

The delegation from Haiti demanded that the working group address the question of “neglected diseases” that mainly affect poor countries and thus do not attract investment in research and development of vaccines and medications by transnational pharmaceutical companies.

The draft resolution discussed by the working group says neglected diseases are a critical challenge for developing countries, and proposes that Hunt and the WHO study ways for the international community to tackle the problem.

The working group, which was created by the Human Rights Commission in 2003, began to meet last year in the tense climate that arose from the difficulties surrounding the talks in Durban.

The U.S. and Israeli delegates stormed out of the international conference because the draft declaration described Israel as a racist state. In the end, that reference was not included in the final document.

African demands for reparations for damages caused by colonialism and slavery also led to discrepancies during the conference between developing countries and several western powers.

What occurred was a kind of “divorce” between blocs of countries, and there was initially a climate of distrust in the working group, its chairman, Chilean diplomat Juan Martabit, told IPS.

But over time, relations between the delegations has improved, and the group of western nations – representing most of the industrialised countries – is participating more actively, which has contributed to the creation of a “climate of dialogue,” he said.

Even the U.S. delegation is now attending the meetings, although without actively participating in the discussions, Martabit added.

Progress is possible when tolerance prevails, said the delegate, who pointed to advances made by the January session of the working group, which was dedicated to questions of racism in connection with poverty and education.

 
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