Dr. Anna Banerji has no doubt that “we live in a racist system.”
In 2005, Banerji adopted a four-month-old Inuit boy from the Arctic and often took him to visit his biological and foster families as he grew up. She hoped to make him proud of his roots by keeping him in touch with his culture. However, she says after her son’s brother passed away at the age of 14, he spiralled into a depression that exposed the systemic discrimination many Indigenous peoples face in health care.
Banerji says she begged for help from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health when she noticed signs of her son’s mental well-being deteriorating, only to have her concerns “basically dismissed.” Only 12 days after Banerji’s cries for help, her son mirrored his brother and took his own life at 14 years old.
“I tell his story to say, as a non-Indigenous person, that I’ve had the experience of the lack of understanding, the ignorance that’s out there (…) especially in the health-care system,” says Banerji. She says that she hopes in telling her story, people will learn from it.
Today, Banerji is a pediatrician, an infectious tropical disease specialist and the founder of the Indigenous Health Conference and the North American Refugee Health Conference. She is also an associate professor in Pediatrics and the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. Her clinical and research focus is on vulnerable children.
Banerji says she has wanted to be a doctor and work with vulnerable populations since she was a child. Even prior to adopting her son, she often analyzed the health of Inuit children residing in the Arctic. Her initial visit in 1995 caused her to realize Inuit infants are more likely to end up admitted to hospitals sick with lower respiratory infections than non-Indigenous infants. She has published multiple pieces of research on the topic. She notes that young and premature infants in southern Canada receive Palivizumab, an immunization agent to protect babies from Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV). However, term infants in Nunavut who have the highest rates of admission in the world do not receive the RSV antibody shot, while others at lower risk do. Banerji has worked tirelessly to change this for two decades.
“I realized partway through that we had the knowledge and the facts, but what we found out was the issue wasn’t the data, it was the advocacy,” says Banerji, who is expecting the next year to be more serious for RSV. “And again, it’ll be another year where these babies get (medically evacuated) down south, when there’s something they can do.”
COVID has not halted her activism. She recently began recirculating a petition to bring the RSV antibody shot to Nunavut’s infants that was put on hold earlier this year due to COVID-19. It has garnered over 175,000 signatures to date.
When the pandemic hit, Banerji advocated heavily for rapid testing and vaccine prioritization for Indigenous communities. A petition to get more resources for Indigenous communities including priority for vaccinations gathered 57,000 signatures and resulted in a $305-million investment from the federal government.
In the past year, Banerji has been asked to join the Nishnawbe Aski Nation’s COVID Task Force to give advice on how to handle the pandemic in northern Ontario. She’s also visited communities in the North to help vaccine operations through ORNGE. On June 16, Banerji was found in Sandy Lake First Nation donning a bright orange every child matters shirt and a pink balloon animal on her head. Nicknamed “Dr. Balloon,” she was making balloon animals to distract fearful children from the needles.
“I’ve made balloons for kids all around the world, and I love that,” she says. “I taught all the nurses I was working with how to make animal balloons and they’re all making them now.”
When the pandemic hit, Banerji advocated heavily for rapid testing and vaccine prioritization for Indigenous communities.
Since the beginning of COVID she has been working in the COVID Clinic and the Long Hauler COVID clinic. Banerji says she’s encountered many people who are suffering with COVID-19 and aren’t being taken seriously by medical experts in their area.
“They don’t know what’s happening and they think some of the symptoms are weird,” she says.
“They get dismissed by a lot of physicians because they haven’t heard of the unusual constellation of symptoms.”
Banerji adds that she does her best to “legitimize their symptoms” and lets them know that they aren’t “being hysterical.” This is especially the case with Indigenous folks facing long-haul COVID.
“I say yes, I know your symptoms are like this and I have other patients that are long-haulers, and many of them have gotten better,” she says. “It gives them hope after they haven’t had hope for almost a year.”
Despite not being Indigenous or a refugee herself, Banerji hopes she’s seen as a genuine advocate for Indigenous and refugee rights. After the pandemic, she plans to continue to work with the Indigenous community as an ally and a strong voice to “shake things up.” She says she hopes to develop programs within pediatric Indigenous health, potentially in northern Ontario.
“After almost 30 years of working with Indigenous communities and having an Indigenous son that died because of a system that failed us, that, you know, my heart is there,” says Banerji. “I have a skill set that I can use to try to advocate to make things better (…) whether it’s in Ontario or somewhere else.”
This is the first profile published as part of the Pillars of the Pandemic series – brought to you by the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and Closing the Gap Healthcare. We will release new profiles in the coming weeks, with 13 people being honoured in total.