Little white pills and a little white privilege

A fantastic article was written recently by Darrel Bristow-Bovey for Times entitled “White privilege still needs to come dressed in a suit”. In it, Bristow-Bovey recounts catching himself out trying to use his white privilege at a pharmacy to get his wife much-needed painkillers with a typically illegible doctor’s script. The privilege does not work, however, because he is dressed too shabbily, and eventually changes into a suit in order to get them painlessly.

The article made me reflect quite critically over my recent experience of a state pharmacy, as a white male.

Some context: When I was 8-years-old I had my spleen removed due to a medical condition called hereditary spherocytosis. My white blood cells are unusually rounded rather than oval-shaped, and so they cannot pass through the spleen easily, which caused it to swell. It was first described to me as a vampire-spleen when I was younger, but I have since been corrected on that.

Due to my condition I have taken penicillin every day of my life since the operation, and will do so for the rest of my life, in order to boost my immune system against serious diseases such as malaria in a way that other people’s spleens do. Being a white, Sandtonian, private-school graduate, I have received these scripts from private doctors my entire life, and gotten the pills from private pharmacies. However, private pharmacies have recently stopped stocking my penicillin pills, and my only option in ever-so-small Grahamstown to receive these pills is Settlers Day Hospital.

I have of course been to state hospitals before. The doctor that diagnosed my condition was from the Johannesburg General Hospital, where my mom used to work as a nurse. I went there again to visit my grandfather in the early months of 2010, when he sadly passed away. I was rushed to a state hospital in the Vaal triangle on the back of a speedboat once because my shin had gotten into a fight with the aforementioned speedboat’s rudder and I needed stitches and a tetanus shot.

On all those occasions my mom had been with me. She had worked as a nurse at the Joburg Gen for several years before I was born, and still works in the medical industry today, and so it was easy to rely on her knowledge to do all the right things and get what I needed and go. However, when I ran low on pills near the end of April this year, it was a different story. I was in Grahamstown. She was in Johannesburg. I was alone.

A friend dropped me off mid-morning on a Tuesday. I walked in and was confronted with an open courtyard with rows of benches and a few doors leading into rooms on every side. I looked around for the sign telling me exactly where I needed to stand. The only signs I could see were one with the pharmacists’ lunch hours on it, and one telling me what injections my baby needed. I didn’t have a baby. The lunch hours instilled some confidence in me though. I had come three hours before lunch. Good job, Jordan!

Now what?

The vast majority of people were sitting all squashed together on the benches on the far side of the courtyard. They were being called up one-by-one to two uncomfortably small, burglar-barred windows. They handed papers through the window. Then they sat down. After a short while their surnames were called out, they got up again, and were given little packets of pills. This looked easy, I decided.

Bristling with confidence, I marched up to the end of the queue, and sat down next to a rather grumpy old woman who appeared to be at the end of the queue. After the queue moved forward some way and she hadn’t moved, but newcomers had joined up, I deduced that she was not. “Tell that umlungu to come sit here,” called out a man near the end of the queue in isiXhosa, a bemused smirk on his face. The old grump pointed at the end of the queue with one hand and shooed me away with the other, and so I joined the real end of the queue.

Half an hour later, I was at the front.

“Next!”

I got up. I promenaded up to the window, and pushed my private script through the window, smiling with what was admittedly the whitest smile I could muster. The pharmacist looked down at the script. Now was the point, my private pharmacy experiences has taught me, when she turns around, fetches the pills, puts them in a little cage locked with a cable tie, that I take to the cashier’s desk to be opened and paid for with a medical aid card. Everything was going to be just fine, and I would soon have my pills.

“So, first thing’s first,” she begins. Oh no…

The pharmacist informed me firstly that I needed to register with Settlers. To do this, I needed to bring along a hardcover Croxley book and sit in the registration queue. I then needed to be seen by one of their doctors, since state pharmacies cannot accept private scripts. I would then need to sit in that queue again every month to get my pills, rather than getting them by the thousand as I was used to doing, an amount that would last me a year and a half.

All I could do was say “thank you very much” with a dumbfounded expression on my face, accept back my useless script, and scurry out of the hospital with my head down, feeling the eyes of all those people about to get their pills watch me leave empty-handed. My privilege had failed me.

In my reflections on the experience, I soon stopped feeling like a failure though. I felt righteous, but eventually so, as though I had my whole life of pharmacy-related privilege to feel guilty about, and now I was finally doing the right thing. I have successfully obtained my first month’s pills, and will go again in a month’s time to get the next batch. Sure, the queue to see Dr Hodge took four hours, but I did it, and it wasn’t all that bad. The queues tend to be great spaces of community in fact, where everyone wants to chat with everyone, be it about their pills, their children, or their lives in general.

I think we as white South Africans would do well to remember the value of community spaces in our electric-fenced lives.

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