Julio Frenk, Dean
Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health
677 Huntington Avenue,
Boston, MA 02115
c/o Ms Linda McDonald Brady, Chief of Staff
Re: Concerns about HSPH’s affiliation with Mr. Leslie Ramsammy- current Richard L. and Ronay A. Menschel Senior Leadership Fellow
May 18, 2015
My name is Sherlina Nageer and I am a citizen and resident of Guyana. I am also a graduate of Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, earning the Masters of Public Health degree in 2000. I am writing to express my great disappointment and concern about the collaboration between the Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health and Mr. Leslie Ramsammy (for reasons which I will outline below). I respectfully submit that Mr. Ramsammy is, in fact, a poor candidate to hold a Menschel Global Leadership Fellowship, teach a course on Leadership Development in Global Health, or be Guest Speaker at the Commencement Exercise for the School of Public Health on May 28th. I believe that the Harvard School of Public Health has been woefully misinformed about Mr. Ramsammy’s accomplishments in the health sector of Guyana and I respectfully request that you reconsider and sever your relationship with Mr. Ramsammy.
I wish to provide some background about myself, to give you some insight into my reasoning and context for my critique of Mr. Ramsammy. I have been resident in Guyana since 2009, working on health and human rights issues, focusing primarily on sexual and reproductive rights and health of women, children and the LGBT community, violence prevention, economic empowerment, and increasing government accountability and quality public services. I am an independent consultant, but affiliated with several local activist organizations, including Red Thread: Crossroads Women’s Center, the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination, Guyana Trans United, and Guyana Rainbow Coalition. I also write a bi-monthly column on Health and Wellness topics for Stabroek News, one of the four major national newspapers of Guyana. Although my work over the past several years has sometimes put me in an adversarial relationship with some government authorities, I remain non-partisan, holding no brief for any political party.
Mr. Ramsammy’s affiliation with the Harvard School of Public Health came as a shock to me, which deepened after I realized he was being lauded as a leader in transforming healthcare in Guyana. I am not sure how much the HSPH investigated or attempted to corroborate Mr. Ramsammy’s claims, or if any effort was made to speak with other independent health care analysts of Guyana prior to his appointment, but I submit that, contrary to Mr. Ramsammy’s claims, the public health system of Guyana remains seriously deficient. While there have indeed been advancements made in the treatment of HIV/AIDS, that has been the case worldwide; there is nothing especially remarkable or innovative about Mr. Ramsammy’s approach in Guyana in that regard. Moreover, Mr. Ramsammy, as Minister of Health, failed to show leadership in multiple areas. I will just touch on four here, which have significant local resonance to the people of Guyana- reproductive rights, LGBTI rights, interpersonal violence, and mental health.
Legislation making abortion legal in Guyana has been on the books since 1995. However, in the decades since the passage of the law, abortion services remain largely unavailable in the public health sector of Guyana. Although Mr. Ramsammy may claim otherwise, the fact is that abortion services only began to be offered earlier this year, in the main public hospital of Georgetown. Women who need this service (especially those living out of town) have, over the years, been forced to pay private physicians. Economically disadvantaged women who cannot afford private doctor fees or to travel to Georgetown, resort to untested and unsafe folk remedies, or visit unlicensed ‘bottomhouse clinics’ where many have been maimed and even killed by doctors without proper training in performing pregnancy termination. Many of these doctors also work in the public health sector but over the years, even though multiple women have been injured or killed by them, none has been sanctioned. When there is a problem, victims’ families are usually either paid off or intimidated into silence, or else given the run around by the authorities. The doctors deny involvement, destroy the evidence, close up their private practice, and just continue working in the public sector. Information about which doctors are trained to provide abortions, where to go for the service, or where to report any problems is not made widely available by the Ministry of Health. In addition, nothing has been done to reduce the stigma around abortion, there is little sex-education in the public schools, and public clinics do not always have all the family planning methods in stock. While Mr. Ramsammy is no longer the Minister of Health, this sad state of affairs has been the case in Guyana for decades now, including during his tenure (see http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2233860 for more information).
LGBTI health and rights is another area in which Mr. Ramsammy failed to provide significant leadership during his tenure as Minister of Health. Some strides were made in reaching out to men who have sex with men in terms of HIV education and prevention, but many other aspects of LGBTI health remain unaddressed. Women who have sex with women and transgender individuals, in particular, remain largely invisible and untended to in the public health system of Guyana. While lip service is paid to patient rights and non-discrimination, research has shown that many non-heterosexual and non-gender conforming Guyanese continue to receive poor quality service from the public health system (see http://www.sasod.org.gy/sites/default/files/resources/CollateralDamage.pdf for more information). Breaches in confidentiality along with disrespectful and discriminatory treatment by healthcare providers are common, making many LGBTI Guyanese reluctant to access healthcare services, including preventative care. As in the case of unlicensed doctors performing abortions, there is little accountability or recourse to justice for LGBTI Guyanese whose rights have been violated. While, Dr. Ramsammy, to his credit, did support civil society’s call to repeal the archaic ‘sodomy laws’ which were inherited from colonial Britain, and has spoken in support of LGBTI rights (as well as the right to abortion) at various international fora, he was unable locally, to mobilize his colleagues to join him on this stance, or to translate this support into tangible action and relief for LGBTI Guyanese on the ground. The fact is that LGBTI Guyanese remain marginalized and stigmatized today, in large part because no influential public figure has stepped forth as a leader to vocally support and advocate for these rights in the public domain.
On the issue of interpersonal violence- Mr. Ramsammy has once again, failed the Guyanese people. Domestic and interpersonal has been widespread in Guyana for many years. While realizing that this is a complex issue with numerous contributing factors, the fact is that there have been numerous high-profile instances of domestic and interpersonal violence perpetuated by friends and colleagues of Mr. Ramsammy which he has remained silent on. In one instance, a former president of Guyana was publicly accused by his ex-wife of hi-tech domestic violence and persecution. In another more recent instant, Mr. Ramsammy’s successor to the position of Minister of Health, cursed and threatened to slap and have someone (me) stripped for questioning him about maternal and child mortality (see http://globalvoicesonline.org/2015/04/24/guyanas-health-minister-assails-womens-activist-says-he-would-slap-her-ass/ for more information). In these and many other instances over the years, Mr. Ramsammy has remained silent and shown absolutely no leadership- no desire or ability to confront his friends and/or those in positions of power who threaten or abuse others. By keeping quiet and toeing the ‘party line’, Mr. Ramsammy has put his own professional and political career ahead of justice and commitment to human rights. His lack of action has contributed to a climate of blaming and shaming those women who dare to speak out and challenge the patriarchal status quo. While some might try to argue that these are personal matters, or politicking, the fact remains that the personal is political, that citizens deserve better treatment from their elected officials, and that to not publicly confront abusers, even if they are friends or colleagues, is to be complicit in the perpetuation of violence.
Finally- concerning mental health. The mental health sector of Guyana has been neglected for decades. As with the issues mentioned above- reproductive rights, LGBT rights, and interpersonal violence- there is much talk but few real advances. While funding and staffing remains extremely limited, Guyanese continue to kill themselves at record rates. According to the most recent data from the World Health Organization, Guyana has the highest estimated suicide rate in the Americas as well as globally (see http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2014/suicide-prevention-report/en/ for more information). The former ruling party of Guyana, which Mr. Ramsammy served as a Member of Parliament since 1997, has tried to refute the WHO’s report by claiming the numbers are incorrect but they have failed to provide any more accurate statistics. The fact is that data collection on many key topics, which could be used to guide policies and strategies have not been adequately collected for many years, or in some cases, like the 2014 Census, collected but not publicly released. The fact is that Mr. Ramsammy, during his tenure as the longest-serving Minister of Health of Guyana, from 2001- 2011, did little to ensure that there were more staff trained or funds allocated to adequately address this significant issue. I am not naive; I realize that resource constraints often limit the scope of necessary action. However, in my opinion, one of the foremost qualities of a leader is the ability to motivate and mobilize attention and support to address key societal issues. Mr. Ramsammy was unable or unwilling to do that, with regards to mental healthcare in Guyana.
Apart from his numerous failings in the Guyanese public health arena which I have described above, and which, in my considered opinion, tarnish whatever reputation he may have gained outside of Guyana as some sort of global leader, Mr. Ramsammy also has serious criminal baggage to consider. He been linked to the notorious drug lord and ‘death squad leader, Mr. Roger Shaheed Khan, who was recently convicted by the U.S government and sentenced to forty years imprisonment for cocaine trafficking, witness tampering, and illegal firearms possession. While serving as the Minister of Health, Mr. Ramsammy officially purchased sensitive ‘spy’ equipment to intercept cellular phone calls- equipment which was later found in the possession of Mr. Khan. Although Mr. Ramsammy denied involvement, his signature was on the bill of sales and sworn testimony to his involvement given in court by representatives of the company involved in the sale (see https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/09GEORGETOWN418_a.html, and http://www.stabroeknews.com/2009/guyana-review/08/20/shaheed-%E2%80%98roger%E2%80%99-khan-drugs-dirty-money-and-the-death-squad/; read for free here- https://saveguyana.wordpress.com/2011/05/09/minister-of-health-dr-leslie-ramsammy-linked-to-drug-lord-shaheed-roger-khan/ for more information).
In conclusion, I do not know what measure of leadership the Harvard School of Public Health used to judge Mr. Ramsammy worthy, but I urge you to please reconsider your affiliation with this individual. A true leader would ensure that his acclaim internationally is grounded in real works and accomplishments on the ground locally. A true leader would not knowingly and willingly aid and abet drug lords and death squad leaders. A true leader would ensure that the laws of his nation are properly implemented and justice and accountability provided to his fellow citizens. A true leader would stand against violence and intimidation and would work for human rights for all. For these reasons and others, Mr. Ramsammy has not demonstrated leadership to the people of Guyana.
To reiterate- I am not a member of any political party and my issue with Mr. Ramsammy is not a personal nor a political one; my condemnation is solely in terms of his record as a public health professional. I think it is misleading to characterize Mr. Ramsammy as a global health leader based on his poor track record on the ground in Guyana, and that doing so does a grave disservice to the students of the T.H Chan School of Public Health and tarnishes the stellar overall image and reputation of the HSPH. Again, I urge you to reconsider and sever your ties with Mr. Ramsammy forthwith.
Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions, concerns, or require any further information. I would also like to let you know that a petition against Mr. Ramsammy’s appointment to the HSPH is currently being drafted and will be circulating among concerned Guyanese at home and abroad and to you as well, for your consideration. I do hope that our voices will be heard by you.
Sherlina Nageer, MPH
Amanda Andreyev, Executive Assistant
Robert Blendon, Senior Associate Dean and Division Director- Division of Policy Translation and Leadership Development
Director of Student and Fellow Programs- Division of Policy Translation and Leadership Development
Steven S. Lee
firstname.lastname@example.org; (617) 576-6600 ext. 201
Madeline R. Conway
email@example.com; (617) 576-6600 ext. 213
Harvard Caribbean Club