The Chinese newspapers in Hong Kong reported last week’s inquest on Harinder Veriah, wife of former editor of Marxism Today Martin Jacques, in bold characters.

‘Indian lawyer suspects colour discrimination, then loses life in local hospital.’ They headlined the tears shed in court by Jacques, described as a ‘famous English voice’, as he made the charge.

‘I am at the bottom of the pile,’ she had said to him in the Ruttonjee Hospital where she was under observation after suffering an epileptic fit. ‘I am the only Indian here, everyone else is Chinese.’

Jacques decided to take her home the next morning. Instead, he was summoned urgently to the hospital where he found Veriah unconscious, attended by only two nurses. An hour- and-a-half later she was dead.

The week-long inquest has raised questions of diagnosis, choice of drugs and medical competence. Veriah was admitted in the early hours of the new millennium. The doctor responsible for her prescribed valium when she had a second fit, saw it administered, and walked away shortly afterwards. He had been on duty for 24 hours.

There have been critical cases recently of alleged negligence in Hong Kong’s public health system. But it is the charge of racial prejudice, in a place where the majority Chinese population lived under white British rule until three years ago, that touches a really sensitive nerve.

‘It’s the last day of the millennium,’ said Veriah on the evening of the 31st, as she lay in bed weak from diarrhoea contracted on a holiday in Vietnam. ‘How can I not go out?’

Jacques told the court they were entertaining the historian Professor Eric Hobsbawm and his family, who were visiting Hong Kong. Veriah, who worked for the international London-based law firm Lovells, had the first fit soon after midnight. The party was leaving the Excelsior Hotel on the packed streets of Causeway Bay.

It was Veriah’s 33rd birthday. Earlier they had travelled by boat to Lantau Island where they had taken a bus to the fishing village of Tai O. On the boat-trip back, they cut her birthday cake.

The first doctor to examine her before she entered hospital decided her ‘grand mal’ attack – only the second of her life – had been precipitated by ‘tiredness’ and ‘two mouthfuls’ of champagne. Though assigned to a neurologist, she never saw him because it was the New Year.

The charge of discrimination hit the headlines and then was barely mentioned again in court. But it hovered in the air during proceedings that illustrated Hong Kong’s complex ethno-cultural mix.

The medical staff being questioned were Chinese: their friends sat supportively to one side of the public benches. Jacques’s friends were mostly non-Chinese: they sat on the other side.

The two key witnesses gave evidence in Cantonese – their mother tongue – though they had written the case notes in English. Questions involving abstruse medical terminology put by Jacques’s Indian barrister had to be filtered through a struggling interpreter. Coroner Andrew Chan, fluent in both languages, sometimes became exasperated and took over.

Jacques spoke intimately of his relationship with his wife and of their two-year-old child: ‘Hari always phoned me from the office every day: we loved each other,’ he told the court.

His attitude has upset some overworked public service doctors who feel they are being made scapegoats.

‘I pity our profession’, wrote one signing himself ‘a humble doctor’ to a medical website. ‘Nowadays, patients cannot be dead. If dead, we become the murderer, the discriminator, the negligent doctor. Why could the patient’s family [not] act more elegant[ly] and not blame us for any death? Why do we doctor[s] need to discriminate [against] anybody?’

Jacques maintains the case raises important questions, not only about the standard of care in Hong Kong hospitals, but as to whether all races enjoy parity of treatment. A senior civil servant of Indian origin phoned him during the hearing to say he was right to raise the issue.

The Hong Kong government was accused of whitewashing racism in a report it submitted last month to the UN. It was ‘almost a social norm’, said a Human Rights Commission spokesman, that people with darker skin suffered discrimination. The government denies the need for an anti-racial discrimination law. Former legislator Christine Loh, who has called for a law, says ‘the problem is they never ask ethnic minority groups’.

Critics says Hong Kong’s money-conscious society looks down on ‘people from poor countries’. Domestic workers from the Philippines and Indonesia often complain of harsh treatment: a maid was branded by her Chinese employer with an iron.

Traditionally, many Indians here worked as guards and doormen or in the import trade. There are now Nepalis from ex-Gurkha families working on construction jobs. Jacques said Veriah found racial discrimination during her year in Hong Kong to be far worse than in the previous four years living in London. She came from the multicultural society of Malaysia, where her left-wing father had been the youngest MP in its first Parliament.

Veriah, said Hobsbawm at her funeral, ‘linked the worlds of Asia and the West. Eastern and Western politics framed her life. But she remained non-political, straddling and combining her worlds.’

Her grieving husband is now committed to a crusade to force Hong Kong to face up to what he insists are deep flaws in its society.

The coroner will give judgment on the case this week.

– John Gittings