Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. Health
18 November 2021updated 19 Nov 2021 10:24am

The death of sickle cell patient Evan Smith tells a story of health injustice bleakly familiar in the pandemic

Covid-19 underlined the grim medical and healthcare inequalities that have long divided Britain’s communities.

By Anoosh Chakelian

On 23 April 2019, Evan Smith was so desperate for oxygen that he called 999 from his hospital bed. A nurse had refused him oxygen, and he felt dialling the emergency services was his only hope.

Two days later, he was dead.

Smith, a 21-year-old from Walthamstow, north-east London, treasured his family and friends and was an “intelligent and caring young man with a very bright future ahead of him”, said his parents Charles and Betty Smith.

[See also: “We can’t breathe”: Gary Younge on systemic racism]

He was also a sickle cell disease patient, which is when red blood cells become crescent-shaped and can lead to health problems and painful symptoms, as blood vessels to certain parts of the body become blocked.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy
THANK YOU

Smith had been admitted to North Middlesex Hospital on 18 April, diagnosed with an infection after becoming feverish following a routine procedure. An inquest into his death earlier this year found he may have survived if staff had recognised his sickle cell symptoms and dealt with them sooner.

Content from our partners
Why competition is the key to customer satisfaction
High streets remain vitally important to local communities
The future of gas

The failings and mistakes in this case are familiar to sufferers of sickle cell disease, which most commonly affects people of African or Caribbean heritage.

[See also: A lifetime of inequality: how black Britons face discrimination at every age]

“Failings in care for individuals with sickle cell disorder are sadly not isolated incidents and… sickle cell patients all too often receive sub-standard care,” says the Sickle Cell Society.

Britain’s most comprehensive inquiry into the experience of sickle cell disease patients, released this week on 15 November, pointed to the role of racism in their sub-standard care. “As sickle is mainly a black illness, they jump to the conclusion that we’re all ‘junkies’ and not in pain at all,” one patient told the all-party parliamentary group for sickle cell and thalassaemia.

The inquiry’s findings are part of a wider story of health inequality in Britain, with black patients – whether they are sickle cell disease sufferers, mothers giving birth, or people detained under the Mental Health Act – all facing discrimination in healthcare.

[See also: Why is coronavirus hitting Britain’s ethnic minorities so hard?]

These longstanding injustices were exposed even further by Covid-19 and its disproportionate impact on black and ethnic minority communities. (It has also been suggested that the resulting loss of trust in the health system could have been one reason behind the slower uptake of the coronavirus vaccine among certain minority groups in Britain.)

[See also: How the UK’s Covid-19 vaccination programme is failing to address racial disparities]

Cases like that of Evan Smith, and the countless other experiences uncovered by the sickle cell inquiry, are evidence of the racial inequality that exists in British health services. As Roger Kline, an expert on workplace culture and discrimination in healthcare and a research fellow at Middlesex University, told me last year: “People are asleep at the wheel… Those who are deciding look different from those who are dying. This doesn’t prove they’re racist – it just shows the need for diversity.”

Topics in this article: