WHAT ARE we to make of a recent viral clip of a medical official replying to queries from the media? In the clip, the official responds to a reporter. She had questioned the use of terminology in relation to the pandemic. She cited things she apparently learned through an internet search. The medical official claps back: “The first thing I’d like to do is thank (co-worker who compiled a related graph named), who is a medical epidemiologist with a master’s degree out of Cambridge in epidemiology. “Not to discount your Google search relating to microbes, but the evolution of the number of cases in any outbreak follows this natural pattern: an initial lag phase and then a log phase. The normal pattern is always a bell curve. This is the same pattern we are seeing in Trinidad and Tobago and every other country in the world.” This official spoke out of pique. Understandably so. He was defending the knowledge, integrity and professionalism of his colleagues and, by extension, himself. He was also probably mindful of the fact that while the internet can be empowering, it is incredibly unreliable and has been a complicating, if not disruptive, factor when it comes to medical treatment. But the resort to name-dropping Cambridge was, to my mind, instructive. Five things about this exchange are worth remarking on. First: we celebrate Independence Day every August. Yet, in many ways we are still shaped by a colonial mindset. It is a mindset in which the foreign is venerated; in which prestige trumps substance; in which Oxford and Cambridge (or Oxbridge) is the be-all-and-end-all of knowledge; in which what is of value is worthy simply because it comes from Britain. George Lamming had his finger on the pulse when, in The Pleasures of Exile, he observed this mode of thinking: “It begins with the fact of England’s supremacy in taste and judgment: a fact which can only have meaning and weight by a calculated cutting down to size of all non-England. The first to be cut down is the colonial himself.” Cambridge is a top university. That alone does not mean the holder of a degree from that institution is above reproach, cannot be questioned, should be assumed infallible. And while I know many fine people who have graduated from such institutions, it is equally the case that for all their brilliance, these universities have a poor record when it comes to diversity. From afar, we have a tendency to fawn over Oxbridge. The favour is not returned. Statistically, many colleges there do not like to admit black and brown bodies, according to figures obtained by reporters in the British media who asked questions and filed freedom of information requests to get the data.This is not surprising considering the context within which these institutions function. Earlier this year, an Oxbridge-educated adviser to the UK prime minister was at the centre of controversy for once suggesting black Americans have a lower IQ than white. The UK prime minister, also an Oxbridge graduate, declined to condemn such remarks. We might think this a recent problem given the bigotry sweeping the world. In truth, when you read the work of famous Trinidadians like Dr Eric Williams and VS Naipaul you must question the rose-tinted images of quaint university spires and cobblestone streets given their encounters with racism decades ago. In response to the viral clip, many on Twitter, including those with TT flags proudly displayed on their profile, had no problem making fun of a reporter for not attending Cambridge. The second source of discomfort is the fact that a medical professional felt emboldened to make such remarks in public. Doctors have no hope of treating anyone if patients feel judged. Elitism, classism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, political considerations – any form of actual or apparent bias hinders full disclosure on the part of the sick. This is literally a matter of life and death. Not all medical workers see patients, but a poor tone was set. Thirdly, the implied suggestion that a line of questioning based on something discoverable by a simple internet search is to be rejected prima facie – I do not speak to the question’s merit or lack thereof – demonstrates the rigid compartments that shape our thinking. We still teach children that the only professions worth pursuing are medicine or law. Anything else is deemed problematic. In such a context, to show automatic contempt for someone who uses resources available to them to educate themselves is to put them in their place and keep them there. It is also to ignore the fact that the Prime Minister has qualifications in geology and geochemistry, not government; likewise the Opposition Leader has qualifications in education and business. Certainly there are professions for which specialisation is essential. Generally though, a degree is meant to give you transferrable critical skills. The fourth problem I have with this exchange is that it demonstrated tendencies that can easily take us down a road to self-censorship. It must be galling for doctors to study for years, decades in fact, and then have people question them on things they think obvious. But in school, teachers always tell students no question is stupid. There is a reason. “If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid,” Epictetus said. No questions would be asked if we had to worry about whether we had the requisite degree to ask it. All would fall silent, in defiance of common sense. Finally, even if we believe the query of negligible merit, it is still apparent that the attitude manifested resonated with an unfortunate social tendency to silence questioning. The words attributed to Dr Williams remain famous: “When I talk not a damn dog bark!” It seems we are to take graphs and curves and diagrams and simply say nothing, because those with degrees from Cambridge have spoken. I hold no brief for the reporter in question. Nor do I question the official’s knowledge, integrity, professionalism, dedication or good intentions. In fact, it is clear to me that our medical workers should be honoured for their service to the nation. Even before this pandemic, they have been risking life and limb in a system in which resources have always been scarce and in which they have been asked to make incredible personal sacrifices for the benefit of the wider community. It is a thankless job. However, this exchange undermined the mantra the State has been trying to hammer home for months. It showed up the divide between holders of prestige-school degrees and non-holders of such degrees. In short, it made false the notion that we are in this together. Poet and writer Andre Bagoo is the author of the essay collection The Undiscovered Country (Peepal Tree Press, 2020)

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