Fighting for change
2023 Kea World Class New Zealand Award winner Dr Natasha Anu Anandaraja
Dr Natasha Anu Anandaraja is the founder and director of Women Together, the founder of Equity Now and the co-founder of Covid Courage. She is an educator, a paediatrician, a public health practitioner, and a social activist. She completed her training at Auckland University before moving to New York to work at Mt Sinai Hospital – one of the oldest and largest teaching hospitals in the US. Anu was born and raised in Taranaki to parents who had previously immigrated from Sri Lanka. Her fight for equality across all areas of the health system has had a global effect on organisations and she credits her success to having New Zealand at her back.
As a child, Anu had a fascination with Africa. She devoured books from the New Plymouth library on the continent and its animals and watched African documentaries on television. She wanted to be a journalist, a wildlife biologist or a naturalist when she grew up, however, both her parents worked in medicine and convinced her that the best way to get to Africa was to be a doctor.
“I studied medicine at Auckland University but I always had this vision of practising and improving medicine and healthcare in areas which were under-developed. That’s what I dreamed of and that’s what took me from New Plymouth into this global health trajectory.”
After studying in New Zealand she moved to New York to work at Mt Sinai Hospital, where she had the opportunity to be part of the team building a global health programme, after building that programme she went on to become the director, a dream job for the girl from Taranaki.
“I was setting up health programs in East Africa and India and taking medical students and residents and public health doctors into the field to actively train them in the kind of specialised medicine and background knowledge that you need to be able to implement effective health care in settings that are under-resourced.”
After a change in leadership at Mt Sinai, Anu stepped back from Global Health to launch her own NGO Women Together Global, an organisation which focuses on connecting women across boundaries of geography and culture, helping them transfer knowledge and skills, and honouring women as educators, innovators and change-makers.
Then In 2019, she filed a federal case against Mt Sinai for sex, age and race discrimination and with seven co-plaintiffs she formed Equity Now, providing a platform for women to speak about discrimination and gender equity in healthcare.
During this time Anu was still working at the hospital as the Director of the Office of Wellbeing and Resilience and when the pandemic hit in 2020 she was drawn back into the day to day running of the hospital as shortages of PPE put staff and patients at risk.
“During Covid, it was really in my face, how under-resourced our health care was for certain populations right here in New York City. I had been used to struggling with poor infrastructure and lack of resources in developing countries across the world, but it really struck home that we were facing those same shortages and deficits and barriers to healthcare here in New York City.”
“Mount Sinai has been my home. It’s where I worked from the moment that I came to New York, and I had been here for almost 20 years by the time COVID hit, I could see that my colleagues were going to go down, and I had this feeling of utter helplessness. So we just got scrappy, we looked at everything we had available to us, we used all our contacts domestic and international, to start mobilising communities to be able to produce, make, distribute, gather the PPE that we needed, and then get it out into those communities that need it at most, at first all hospitals were struggling but as time went on we see what we always see, those hospitals who serve under-privileged populations were once again left behind.”
Following the pandemic, Anu co-filed a new complaint against Mount Sinai in the New York State court. She draws on this legal case, alongside advocacy work, to demand institutional changes that will benefit all healthcare employees. To date, this work has seen changes at both the city and now state level.
Anu hasn’t taken the easy route, standing up for issues she believes in. but says that she believes that if communities stand together, change will happen.
“Being a Kiwi gives you a sense that we can do it. I think also growing up as a New Zealander, there’s a healthy scepticism and a healthy disregard for authority on a certain level and a willingness to say, ‘I have an idea’ and step forward even if it breaks the rules and even if it’s outside a structure or a system. For me, what gave me the ability to go forward and to try and make a change was really having my home as Aotearoa. As much as things were falling apart in New York City, I knew that I had a whole country, a home and a family behind me that I could rely on and it gave me this feeling of it’s gonna be alright.”
Dr Stella Safo who created Just Equity for Health, says she is proud to call Anu a friend.
“She is the connective tissue for so many important movements, movements to inspire and build up other women, movements to address discrimination in medicine, movements to improve. She builds coalitions. She makes the world a better place.”
Anu also wants to give credit to her high school English teacher at New Plymouth Girls High, whose advice she says she still channels today.
“She taught me one of the most transformative lessons of my life. I had handed in a writing assignment. I wrote what I thought would be expected of a teenage girl. I wrote about boys, about dating, and my teacher, Miss Hall, wrote a comment on my paper that has shaped a lot of what I’ve done since she wrote You are too intelligent to pretend that you are dizzily obsessed with boys. Try again. So with that one comment, Miss Hall at New Plymouth Girls High School changed my vision for myself. She cut through the conditioning that was beginning to be laid upon me as a teenage girl. She gave me permission to be different and now when I work with women and girls across the globe I think of her and I am determined that no woman should pretend to be, or should be made to be, smaller than she is.”
Lonjezo Chanza of Women Together Global says she admires Anu’s strength.
“She puts everything in place, she works with women together, directing all the programs, listening to the women, listening to the people that she works with. I think she puts so much strength in it.”
For Anu, being Kiwi means she has a sense of self reliance.
“We are a little country at the bottom of the world. We rely on ourselves. If something’s going to be done, we will do it. I grew up with a sense that anything is possible if people come together”