Sajid Javid Wants Us to Believe Oximeters Create Racism

Nice try, dude.

by Shanice McBean

2 December 2021

A pulse oximeter is attached to a patient’s finger to monitor oxygen intake within the body, January 2021. Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

Sajid Javid emerged as a bastion of equality last week as he launched an uncompromising attack on racism in this country. His target? Oximeters.

Oximeters measure the oxygen levels in the blood and are used to spot dangerously low levels in Covid patients, triggering lifesaving care. But here’s the catch: oximeters work by sending out radiation. Melanin, that lovely molecule that makes skin brown, works by absorbing radiation. You can see the issue. This medical bias, the health secretary is convinced, has been responsible for many avoidable deaths.

Without question, medical manufacturers need to test all equipment with race in mind. It’s not good enough that trials to calibrate oximeters took place with mostly white participants; that there are few Black people involved in the development of these technologies, so no one who might say: “Hang on a second, we might need to think about how a device made to work with skin interacts with different kinds of skin”.

But what we cannot allow is for the government to hide its own racism behind medical devices and manufacturing processes. Remember: this is the same government that claims institutional racism isn’t real; that lets migrants die in the sea to shore up its xenophobic voter base; and that backs a police commissioner who has not the foggiest why her officers keep nicking Black people. The race problem that Sajid Javid would like to conveniently package within the four plastic walls of an oximeter is in fact much closer to home.

Let’s start with Covid-19. Early into the pandemic it became clear that more Black and Asian people were dying from the virus. What was swiftly obscured were the reasons why. There is no evidence of a genetic conspiracy between Covid-19 and melanin. The reality is the way in which Black lives are structured by race and class means we are much more vulnerable to Covid-19 than others. From here it’s simple maths: the more of us that catch it, the more of us that die.

Overcrowded housing, low-income employment, overrepresentation in key worker roles: these are the realities of Black and Asian life in Britain that mean we are less able to shield ourselves from the virus. In theory the solution is simple: quality temporary accommodation; financial assistance to support isolation and shielding; better pay and working condition for key workers. Improving economic freedom will mean Black and Asian people have greater means to protect themselves. Even co-morbidities that on the surface seem biological – diabetes, obesity, heart conditions – are correlated with low-income.

The solutions are simple, but expensive. And here lies Sajid Javid’s hypocrisy: he will call out the racism of medical devices but refuses to acknowledge the racism inherent in the social, political and economic world his government are crafting. In the Tories’ world, fighting racism is good and noble only up until it costs anything.

It’s easy for Sajid Javid to leave the issue of medical racism at oximeters, but medical racism expands its dirty tendrils far beyond these little finger devices. For example, Black women are four times more likely to die in childbirth, and we know part of the reason for this is Black people are often not believed about pain.

We know that Black women are less likely to be referred by police to specialist domestic abuse services, despite the fact we are more likely to report it. Sistah Space, a domestic abuse organisation that provides support for Black women, has spoken powerfully on the fact police often don’t know what bruises on Black skin looks like and are more likely to approach Black survivors as troublemakers than they are victims.

We know that in multiple cases where Black people have been killed or severely injured in police custody, the person’s suffering and need for urgent medical assistance were ignored by the officers present.

Christopher Alder, Sean Rigg, Julian Cole – just a few of the many cases where police showed complete indifference towards and disbelief of Black pain. This idea – that Black people exaggerate or lie about our symptoms, suffer less or feel pain differently to others is a longstanding white supremacist stereotype invented to justify the treatment of slaves. It endures in the psyche of many to this day.

Of course, Sajid Javid has nothing to say about this because, unlike oximeters, the real world doesn’t deflect the blame for racism onto technological devices but points it squarely at him and his people. That said, scapegoating oximeters is at least an improvement on the government’s usual stance on racism: that it simply doesn’t exist.

Shanice McBean is an activist and writer.

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.