AfroSaúde: Addressing institutional racism in Brazil’s healthcare system for the Afro-Brazilian community

June 26, 2020

By: Eiza Naveed

“When you talk to people about your problem, you will find that it is someone else’s problem, too.” For 28-year-old Arthur Lima from Salvador, Brazil, his problem was one oft-ignored, but one that plagued the lives of many other Afro-Brazilians like him: the problem of institutional racism in the healthcare system of Brazil. Fortunately, Arthur went on to found and serve as the CEO of “AfroSaúde” – an initiative that helps increase access to healthcare for the Afro-Brazilians in his country.

Growing up as an Afro-Brazilian and working as a black dentist, Arthur was deeply aware of how his identity influenced his access to healthcare in Salvador, Brazil. He realized two significant issues that plagued the wellbeing of others like him. Firstly, that the Afro-Brazilians were treated in a colour-blind fashion – with doctors often misprescribing or misdiagnosing issues during health consultations. For example, they would prescribe products that did not suit an Afro-Brazilian skin type. Secondly, it was tremendously difficult for black healthcare workers to feel visible in the labour market, with great barriers that prevented them from reaching the general public. While sitting in a lecture in his Masters’ class one day, inspiration struck Arthur, and the ideas that he scribbled down that day became the very foundation of a solution that targeted both these problems. Thus, in July 2019, Arthur founded a social business that would go on to change hundreds of lives in his community: AfroSaúde (Afro Health): a health-tech for Afro-Brazilians. Not only did Arthur work towards addressing a longstanding social issue, but he also sparked nationwide conversations about the systematic racism that Afro-Brazilians faced. More than 3000 people responded to Arthur’s online surveys acknowledging that they had been affected by these issues.

AfroSaúde began as a database that Arthur and his team manually created – the database currently has information of over a thousand health professionals from all over Brazil. They use it to avidly connect patients with specific doctors, and vice versa, essentially ensuring that black patients are treated by doctors that know how to treat them appropriately, and that healthcare workers finally are visible in the market. Over time, however, AfroSaúde evolved to become an umbrella or a brand under which various health initiatives for the Afro-Brazilian community thrived –  including a free helpline for COVID-19, and a website for advancing mental wellbeing in today’s uncertain times.

During COVID-19, AfroSaúde’s response was, and continues to be, remarkable: they launched a helpline that provides pro bono telemedicine, connecting patients suspecting COVID-19 symptoms with health professionals. The need for this stemmed from the fact that many Afro-Brazilians were unable to afford health insurance in the country, and so were more vulnerable than the white citizens who did have health insurance. 

So far, hundreds of individuals have benefitted from this initiative – reporting their recovery from the suspected COVID-19 symptoms after following the advice from the doctors. The joy and gratitude that the people have expressed propel AfroSaúde’s team forward: “Just yesterday, I received a call from a patient, telling me how they were finally recovering after battling with COVID-19 symptoms. They were so grateful. [This] made us very happy!” Arthur smiled. While this telemedicine service has helped hundreds of people, Arthur humbly and firmly believes that he does not measure social impact based on the number of lives saved, but on the depth of how each life is individually impacted, or to what extent one’s health is made better off after interacting with AfroSaúde. It is commendable that Arthur and his team are financing the phone calls themselves: they worked hard to crowdfund money for the initiative. 

Right now, Arthur’s team is in the process of launching a centralized website for AfroSaúde and plans to convert it into a monetization source in the future. Currently the website has the team’s contact information, and will soon list all the services that the social business offers. This one-stop platform will allow patients to search and schedule consultations with black healthcare workers, and will also allow healthcare workers to manage patients, gain visibility in the market, and offer telemedicine services. Recently, they launched their website that offers mental health support for COVID-19. which will provide mental wellbeing and health services to the Afro-Brazilian community.

Although with many successes, Arthur’s journey has not always been smooth. While sharing the social obstacles in his journey so far, Arthur highlighted two things: the first was that there were some people who criticized that AfroSaúde was more ‘exclusive’ than ‘inclusive’ as it catered to only the Afro-Brazilian community. However, the great impact that his initiative has had on people and the number of lives that have been helped so far has validated the significance of the platform. The second obstacle was about making the people he was helping understand the depth of the issue: although the problem of systematic racism in healthcare is nationwide in Brazil, very little conversation has happened around it. Consequently, most people did not understand the gravity of the issue – therefore, in the early days of the business, Arthur invested a lot of time into helping people understand the gravity of the situation, before offering his solution

The Y&Y Fellowship program has been quite helpful for taking Arthur’s social business AfroSaúde in taking it off the ground – not only does he value the spur of creative ideas born out of his discussions with the global fellows, he also values being able to refine his soft skills with he help of his mentors With a big smile, he said “it’s a beautiful exchange – they[my mentors] are teaching me many things – such as business model skills and finance, and I am teaching them about how racism impacts our world.” His team also values the outsider’s perspective that Y&Y Fellowship offers in helping shape the next steps of his social business, and how they help tether his dreams to a realistic framework. His mentors have also helped AfroSaúde establish international partnerships. He encourages candidates interested in the Fellowship to apply, and use the Y&Y application as an opportunity to reflect and understand oneself and one’s social business – it helped Arthur develop a clearer picture about what he wants and hopes to get out of AfroSaúde. “And once you begin your fellowship, start with baby steps.”

Arthur is passionate about addressing institutional racism that the Afro-Brazilian community suffers from, and upholds his business of AfroSaúde and finding solutions to this problem as his life’s central mission. With a smile, he offered heartwarming advice for all current and aspiring social entrepreneurs: “Don’t hide your idea, thinking that someone else will steal it! Remember that we can all solve the same problem in our own ways; when you talk to people about your problem, you will find it is someone else’s problem too – whether in your city or in another. Remember to communicate about your issues with the people [that you are trying to help]. And [don’t worry] about quickly having a social impact. Have persistence; the results always come with time.”

Arthur hopes to continue working on expanding AfroSaúde while finishing his Masters in 2020.

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