28 September 2021

Reflections of South Asian Heritage Month

Consultant Respiratory Physician, Dr Binita Kane, Co – Chair and Founder

My own interest in health and ethnicity was sparked only a few years ago, not because of my NHS role, but due to a life-transforming experience taking part in the BBC1 documentary ‘My Family, Partition & Me’ in 2017.

I had the opportunity to trace my own father’s journey through the post-colonial period and understood for the first time how Empire had shaped every aspect of his (and therefore my own) life. I reflected on his journey into the NHS in 1969, welcomed as a British Citizen at a time where there were huge shortages of junior doctors, only to face abject racism in his working life.

Since then, I have co-founded the UK’s first ‘South Asian Heritage Month’ which celebrates the culture, and history of British people of South Asian descent.

Although it is currently a volunteer-led campaign, which aims to celebrate, commemorate and (most importantly) educate the wider public about South Asian History and Heritage,  our ambition is for it to become firmly embedded into British culture as an annual event.

During our second year which ran online from 18 July 2021 to 17 August 2021, the hashtag #SouthAsianHeritageMonth made over 269 million impressions across the globe, with a reach of over 77 million individuals. This exceeded our expectations and highlighted the strong appetite for recognition of a diaspora that makes up one in every four people on the planet and has shaped so much of modern Britain.

As part of this, with the help of the public and fellow healthcare professionals, I curated a programme around health. Topics were driven by the subjects that South Asian Communities wanted to talk about. This ranged from ‘mainstream’ subjects such as lifestyle, diet, fitness, living with cancer and COVID- 19 to more ‘taboo’ areas such as baby loss, domestic violence, menopause and HIV. It should not go unnoticed how many ‘taboo’ subjects revolve around women’s’ health. Additionally, mental health seemed to intersect with every health topic we discussed.

Recent data from NHS England showed that South Asians made up less than 7% and Black minority groups less than 2% of total referrals to post-COVID assessment clinics.  Given the disproportionate effects of COVID infection in these groups, I was shocked but sadly not surprised at these figures. I have recently tasked two junior Clinical Fellows to search the literature regarding ethnicity and access to outpatient services. Whilst it is clear there are discrepancies in access and outcomes across multiple disease areas, they have found precious little research into the reasons behind this or any attempts to seriously tackle the problem in the UK.

 My reflections from the month are many.

Firstly, grouping all black and brown people together under the umbrella term ‘BAME’ is woefully inadequate.

For example, the issues within British Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian communities are very different. Much of this relates back to migration stories and the drivers of how and why people came to the UK. This is in the same way that the Windrush generation of Black British people of Caribbean origin who arrived in the UK in the late 1940s and 50s, have a very different story to the Black British people of West African origin who arrived in the 1960s and 70s. An appreciation of the communities that make up one’s local population and an understanding of colonial history is essential if we are to tackle health inequalities.

Secondly, South Asian Heritage Month seems to have provided a platform that has been previously lacking for open discussion, bringing like-minded people together, tackling stigma and ‘normalising’ discussions around topics like mental health.  Having a livestreamed online programme allowed people to access information and expert opinion on a range of subjects, anonymously if they wished to do so. It also provided an opportunity for healthcare professionals passionate about tackling inequalities to collaborate.

Thirdly, it has become abundantly clear that much of the way the NHS operates is rigged to widen health inequalities. From the lack of training of healthcare professionals in cultural differences, an education system focussed almost entirely through a white British lens, a paucity of health information tailored to minority communities to lack of diversity on NHS Boards and an organisation which (it pains me to say) is at its heart still institutionally racist.  Whilst I understand that the sacrifices of my father’s generation have paved the way to a much better experience for mine, we still have a long way to go.

Finally, the month has highlighted the huge appetite of colleagues, friends, professions and the public to discuss their South Asian heritage openly and to think about how it fits in their lives and experience of South Asian migration. It warmed me to the bones to see colleagues proudly telling their family stories of migration, sharing their grapples with dual identity and posting photographs of themselves in traditional outfits which they might have otherwise felt embarrassed to step outside in.

NHS Staff networks and Royal Colleges proudly showcased the talents and contributions of their South Asian members. Perhaps most tantalising of all was the thousands of images of traditional foods shared across the month, a subject that brings together every nation and culture, a reminder of the shared heritage of all South Asians despite their post-colonial modern identities.

I am probably preaching to the converted but thank you for sticking with me. I have an ask. I encourage each and every one of you to speak to your leaders and challenge them with the following questions: What are you doing to seriously tackle health inequalities? What are you doing to understand the lived experiences of your minority ethnic staff groups and to create equal opportunities? What will this organisation do for South Asian Heritage Month in 2022?

South Asian Heritage Month begins on 18 July and ends on the 17 August.

South Asia is formed of eight countries including:

  • Afghanistan
  • Bangladesh
  • Bhutan
  • India
  • Maldives
  • Nepal
  • Pakistan
  • Sri Lanka.

Further information; www.southasianheritage.org.uk

Twitter @SAHM_UK, Instagram @southasianheritagemonth_uk