Karen McVeigh, Guardian (London), March 31, 2010
A journalist who fought a decade-long legal battle with a Hong Kong hospital over the death of his wife has been awarded a “substantial sum” in compensation.
Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World and a Guardian columnist, has always maintained that his wife, Harinder Veriah, 33, an Indian-Malaysian, died after suffering negligence brought on by racism. Their son, Ravi, was 16 months old when she died.
Veriah died in the Ruttonjee hospital on 2 January 2000 after an epileptic seizure. The night before, she had complained to Jacques about her poor treatment, saying she was at the “bottom of the pile” because of the colour of her skin. Her words, repeated by Jacques at her inquest, struck a chord with many among Hong Kong’s ethnic communities. They prompted a campaign about racism in the country and culminated in its first anti-racism laws in 2008.
Today, speaking in Hong Kong, Jacques said he felt vindicated by the settlement, which came on the eve of a high court action against Hong Kong Hospital Authority, after an “aggressive and bloody-minded” battle.
He said: “The hospital authority settling is basically admitting that Hari’s treatment was indefensible. I fought to get hospital records and I started to get a picture of what happened and the picture was that her treatment was outrageous. There’s absolutely no reason why someone should die from epilepsy. Hari’s death was utterly unnecessary and utterly avoidable. I have always believed that if Hari had been white or Chinese she would still be alive today. The trouble is, after a death like that you’re never the same person. I’ve learned to handle it, but the pain never goes away.”
Frances Swaine of lawyers Leigh Day welcomed the announcement of the settlement after what she described as an “arduous and demanding” case. “I am relieved that this settlement means that Martin and his son Ravi can now be released from the pressures that accompany any court case and move on in their lives,” she said.
Veriah, a lawyer who worked for Lovells in Hong Kong, was admitted to Ruttonjee hospital after suffering a grand mal epileptic fit on the first day of the millennium, after a celebratory night out.
Jacques became worried for her after she told him of the racism she believed was behind her poor treatment there and he was unable to get any useful information from the duty doctor. When he received a call from a nurse the next morning to say that Veriah had suffered another fit, he was at her bedside within 10 minutes. There was no sign of a doctor, who had prescribed Valium, he said. Veriah never regained consciousness and died shortly afterwards.
At the initial inquest into her death, in November 2000 in Hong Kong, the coroner recorded a verdict of death from natural causes, saying that epilepsy sometimes claimed otherwise healthy young adults.
Jacques eventually managed to get hold of her hospital records. What he read convinced him that Veriah had suffered a respiratory depression–a decline in oxygen–after being given a sedative and that she was not monitored or treated properly.
“Valium is a sedative which can depress breathing. Her oxygen levels were falling even although she appeared to be breathing normally–and they failed to monitor her properly,” said Jacques.
In 2002, at the London inquest into her death, the court heard from two pathologists, one from Hong Kong and one from Britain, who could not find anything wrong with Veriah. One theory was that she may have had a reaction to the Valium. Professor Joe Collier of St George’s hospital, Tooting, said a drug that could reverse the effects of Valium was not given.
The St Pancras coroner, Dr Stephen Chan, recording an open verdict, said: “There is a question to be addressed as to the level of care in those last 20 minutes and the management and level of care given . . . in the brief stay in hospital.”
Jacques, who has been “very damaged” by what happened to his wife, said: “No one can compensate for Hari’s death but justice does matter. It is tragic that care for those who are ill can be prejudiced by their colour. But as Hari found in 14 months in Hong Kong, racism is endemic to Hong Kong society.”
Racism in Hong Kong
Harinder Veriah’s death helped to expose an ugly truth in Hong Kong: that racism is a serious problem. In its coverage of the case, a report in the Asian Wall Street Journal entitled “Hong Kong’s big dirty little secret” acknowledged that racism was so ingrained that derogatory terms for ethnic minorities such as gwei lo (“ghost people”) for whites and hak gwai or (“black ghost”) for blacks were barely noticed. In 2008 the Hong Kong government introduced an anti-racism bill that marked a milestone in the relationship between the predominantly Chinese population and its minority citizens.