the accidental campaigner

Posted by Vita Sinclair

Tue, 28 Feb 2012

So, as in all the best rousing speeches and inspiring prose, I shall start by telling you a little about myself. My mum is from New Zealand and my dad is very much an Englishman. You might imagine that there would be no great cultural rift in this alliance but, dear reader, to think this you would be wrong.Throughout my childhood I can remember my mother bearing her Kiwi ‘come one, come all, if you stand within two metres of me in a public space, you relinquish the right not to be conversed with, introduced to my whole family and, damn it, if I like you, invited round to dinner’ credentials with pride, to mine and my father’s deep awkwardness.

To give you a couple of examples, she still goes on yearly holidays with a woman she met on a ski-lift in the 90s and has become lifelong friends with a woman she split hot coffee on, on the tube.The relevance of this is to say that I spent a lot of my childhood beetroot, watching my mother embrace school teachers and offer acquaintances my room to stay in for days at a time. It is in response to these encounters I perceived at the time as nothing short of near abuse, that I embarked upon my adult years seeking a quiet life without undue attention and without trying to change the world around me more than I needed to.

Unfortunately things never seemed to work out that way and I think to describe myself as unopinionated would render this blog completely illegitimate in the eyes of anyone who knows me well. Though it is true to say that the thing that initially put me off getting more involved in Medsin was campaigning. Despite enjoying 3am setting the world to rights conversations probably more than the average person, campaigning still seemed a little uncomfortable to me.  But it has occurred to me recently the reason maybe I think joining in and having a shout is okay…

Campaigning, for me, started as an extension of wanting to change things in myself and immediate surroundings. As I spoke to more people about the things I was interested in, I noticed a surprising majority seem to share my opinions. Most people are scared about climate change and do want to do something and a lot of people believe that pharmaceutical companies should do more to distribute drugs to those who need them most at a significantly reduced price. However, lots of these people said they didn’t have the time or didn’t know how to campaign to change things themselves (if this is you and you  already do want to get involved, you can skip paragraphs 5 – 9 and go straight to getting involved. The rest of you, I want you for another half a page…)

If you are one of those people who will honestly admit to just not wanting to campaign, I can understand this. Campaigning takes up a lot of time, people don’t always listen to or care what you have to say and, even worse, I have yet to find anywhere to include it on the MTAS form. The type of questions I’ve heard frequently are those along the lines of ‘what difference will it make if I recycle when no one else does?’ or ‘Why shouldn’t the NHS buy surgical equipment from cheap companies with poor working conditions when other countries do anyway? Won’t nothing change?’ And that is good logic, trusty medical student problem-solvers. But, upon accepting that your carbon footprint is a drop in the ocean of carbon flowing out of London let alone the world and that we can’t control procurement strategies internationally, two options exist. To decide that recycling simply isn’t worth the extra bins. Or to swallow your memories of wishing your mum would just stop dispensing her New Zealand pearls of wisdom to anyone and everyone, ‘there are more ways to kill a cat than stuffing it’s bum with hot butter didn’t you know’ and decide to shout a bit louder to someone with more power than yourself to change things and tell anyone who will listen on your way. And for me, there are two main arguments for choosing the latter.

The first is that I do believe that people want to do the right thing but I also believe in human nature.  Because if I was a pharmaceutical executive, I’m not sure how low I’d price my newly discovered, very expensive to develop life-saving drug,  how ethically I’d source my equipment and low carbon I’d make my energy sources. And I’d hope, that if I did want to, there’d be someone shouting and campaigning about why I should do it, to back me up when I have to pitch it to my shareholders.  And I’d damn sure hope there was a law making all my competitors do it too.

The second reason, is that by campaigning, I think it is possible to make change easier. Though top down change isn’t the answer every time, if hospital equipment is more widely recycled for example, we needn’t feel we’re deserting the cause every time we prioritise patient hygiene above waste reduction. In this way, to me campaigning is reminding the people in charge that it is not my or your responsibility to act perfectly in systems which were made before we fully understood their repercussions. Choosing which drug to prescribe should not be an ethical decision. The drugs we receive should be from companies legally obliged to act in the interests of healthcare globally, taking into account workers’ rights, carbon output and availability of essential medicines to those that need them. The same goes for any other resource we use either as future healthcare professionals or just in our daily lives.

So maybe the message you can take from this is that we all become our mothers, or maybe (and this is the one I’m hoping you’ll take away) that campaigning is not taking on sole exhausting responsibility for fixing the world. But for making sure that those who do have the opportunity to change things, know that you are watching, pressuring or even advising them and know that when they do try to change things for the better, you are supporting them. So, if you do find something that convinces you that shouting is the right thing to do even when the tiny Englishperson inside your (or maybe just my) head is hissing ‘quiet! You’re making a scene…’ remember that there will be others out there glad you are and you might just be making things easier for yourself in the future too.

But in the meantime, I might add that the best way to remind yourself to keep going seems to be by inviting that medsinner acquaintance you’ve just met to stay on your floor preparing powerpoints, energisers and ice-breakers for some vocal if not acrobatic campaign training the next day…


Vita is a third year medical student at King’s College London and is currently medsin magazine editor. She also attended the UNFCCC COP17 climate negociations in Durban in December as part of the Medsin-Healthy Planet delegation.

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