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Ade Williams: Anti-racist action in pharmacy may not last

"Some colleagues deny pharmacy has a problem with racism"

Pharmacy needs institutions across the sector to commit to clear goals with deadlines if the anti-racist movement in pharmacy is to survive, says Ade Williams

The year of 2020 has morphed memory from the usual photomontage to static picture slides, with images and events etched into our minds and heart – many of which are very distressing. George Floyd’s killing in May at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis is one such image.

But the outrage the killing sparked became the global rallying cry of Black Lives Matter. Individuals and organisations have since engaged in exercises that reflect on race. Some are doing so for the first time. Among the many positive outcomes from this trauma have been people’s declarations of support for the fight against racism. Racism is a collective trauma upon all our consciences.

Those individuals and institutions who perpetuate racism through unconsciously reinforcing it offer a glimpse into the character of society as a whole. In them, we can see not only moral bankruptcy unmasked, but the folly of our collective knee-bending to systemic racism. We are blind to the absence of equity, diversity and inclusiveness in institutions because they were never there in the first place.

The rise of anti-racism this year has led to some soul searching, which has unearthed horrors for some of us. I am not exempt from these pains as I am, in many ways, privileged. Despite the support for anti-racism, some colleagues still take a poisoned path by denying there is any problem to address.

I am concerned that pharmacy’s action to address this social injustice will not last. I do not doubt the sincerity, commitment or resolve of all the highly credible individuals involved. However, I understand that, as Dr Martin Luther King Jr said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Justice always needs people who are committed, focused and energised, and lots of them, as bending the arc of the moral universe is a thankless, exhausting, consuming enterprise. The right policies and framework will pull the arc in the right direction.

We must never forget that change is always a destination, not a journey. Pharmacy needs urgent change so we can do better for all those in our professional family from a minority ethnic background, especially black colleagues.

There should be a determined effort to remove the unjust barriers faced by other groups with protected characteristics as well as those with physical and mental needs. Sadly not enough effort has been invested in closing the professional gulf with other ethnicities reported by black colleagues.

I am impressed by the vision laid out in August in NHS England’s document We are the NHS: People Plan 2020-21. It is unambiguous in laying out how it seeks to transform the whole NHS with palpable urgency following the impact of COVID-19. It is a response to the sad loss of colleagues and loved ones. It recognises how the people in the NHS have given more of themselves than ever before and how the public have responded with overwhelming warmth. The plan says: “The clapping has stopped, but our people must remain at the heart of our NHS, and the nation, as we rebuild.” The same is true for pharmacy. 

My favourite part of the document is the section titled “Belonging in the NHS”. By acknowledging how COVID-19 has “intensified social and health inequalities” as well as its “disproportionate impact on black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) colleagues” among others, the plan takes responsibility for the change needed.

The plan continues: “The NHS is the largest employer of BAME people in the country and BAME colleagues have lost their lives in greater numbers than any other group. We must take seriously our responsibility to look after at-risk staff, prioritising physical and psychological safety.

“Each of us must listen and learn – from our colleagues, and from society – and take considered, personal and sustained action to improve the working lives of our NHS people and the diverse communities we serve.”

Underpinning this vision are time-specific goals for more equal recruitment, disciplinary processes and governance. These capture the pace and scope of change. I would certainly like to see the General Pharmaceutical Council, schools of pharmacy, NHS commissioners, pharmacy representative bodies and all other sector stakeholders committing to such unambiguous, objective measures with defined accountability.

I see various parts of the NHS responding daily with vigour to the NHS People plan. I fear pharmacy lagging behind, missing opportunities to work and learn with others as they take action. 

Black History Month in October reminded us sadly that the injustice of racism also exists in pharmacy. Not only must we all be champions of change. We also need leadership to demand and drive action with speed and priority. We must all embrace a culture of measuring tangible progress every year, while challenging ourselves to do more before the next Black History Month.

I look forward to seeing what has been built from the lessons of this year in Black History Month 2021. I hope to see a pattern of transparent accountability across the profession, as pharmacy leads the fight against the societal scourge of racism.  

Ade Williams is superintendent pharmacist at Bedminster Pharmacy in Bristol and associate non-executive director of North Bristol NHS Trust

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