Health activism is now more important than ever

On World Health Day, the People’s Health Movement reflects on the role health activism will play in protecting the right to health after the COVID-19 pandemic

April 07, 2022 by Fran Baum, Sulakshana Nandi
World Health Day

World Health Day on April 7 celebrates the anniversary of the founding of the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1948. The People’s Health Movement (PHM) was formed in 2000 in response to the growing belief of health activists around the world that the WHO had lost its connection to people at the grassroots.

The WHO’s founding ambition of ‘Health for All’ had not been achieved at all – massive inequities between and within nations were growing, not reducing, and the WHO’s Alma Ata vision of a comprehensive primary health care had been lost behind privatized health systems and nearly all health systems focusing solely on clinical care and not health prevention or promotion. As we founded PHM, we knew that the only way to serve the people is through effectively managed public health systems that are able to take action on social and commercial factors, so that the drive for private profit can not impede the dream of health for all.

The ravages caused by privatized and commercialized health systems have been laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic. It has exposed the continued capture of global governance by profit-oriented institutions and has become just another opportunity to put profits before people’s lives. This is starkly illustrated in the refusal of some of the most powerful countries to a TRIPS waiver at the World Trade Organization (WTO) that would enable better access of countries of the global south to COVID-19 vaccines and other medical technologies. The lack of vaccine equity has so clearly highlighted the ways in which rich countries gain privileged access to vaccines while the rest of the world lags behind and is more exposed to COVID-19.

Despite the evidence on the market failures in healthcare and the ways in which privatized systems increase inequities, global financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) continue to promote market-led strategies such as Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) and impose austerity measures that are bound to debilitate public systems. Infiltration of transnational corporations (TNCs) and philanthrocapitalists into powerful decision-making roles within global governance has promoted private interests. Multi-stakeholderism, including within multilateral institutions such as the WHO, has undermined public interest, democratic decision-making, and global solidarity. Our mission at PHM is to shout loudly in all forums that we can about the need for people-driven health systems and governments that put people’s well being before the profits of TNCs.

The pandemic has also shown that we currently have health for some (mainly for those who are more privileged) rather than for all! In addition to the completely inequitable distribution of vaccines, COVID-19 treatments have been largely denied to those in low- and middle-income countries. The vulnerable circumstances in which many people live and work have been highlighted as making people more likely to catch, get sick and die from COVID-19. Homeless people, those living in poverty, informal workers, people with disabilities, and people of color have all been more exposed to the virus as a result.

Health and care workers (most of whom are women) have been lauded as heroes, but many are not paid enough or given adequate protective clothing. The PHM will never stop arguing that health has to be for all and that only publicly funded and delivered comprehensive health services can ensure that. Hence our slogan Health for All Now!

Global economic and political systems are geared up to the needs of TNCs in sectors beyond health. World Health Day 2022 has the theme “Our Planet, Our Health”. The greatest threat to human health is global warming brought about by the extensive use of fossil fuels. The evidence is now overwhelming (see the IPCC Report) that inadequate global action means the Earth is heading towards catastrophic warming of over 2°C. We know that governments must slash emissions this decade and rapidly transition away from burning fossil fuels. Not doing this will threaten the health of everyone but particularly people already in precarious situations, including Pacific island countries whose very existence is threatened and countries with low lying areas like Bangladesh.

The main barrier to effective action is a powerful, relentless and downright dangerous network of fossil fuel TNCs which work to ensure that governments around the world will not block their path to profits. The profits flow mainly to the TNC shareholders who primarily reside in rich countries. The resources they make their profits from are mainly in middle and low-income countries. Their activities are a continuation of the extractive colonial capitalism that has plundered the world for the last two centuries.

Colonialism has seen Indigenous peoples lose their land and culture in a fierce struggle for survival. Their losses have been a loss for the whole planet because their knowledge of how to care for country and eco-systems offers us a means to reverse the ecological damage and learn once again how to tread softly on the face of our beautiful planet. The world views of Indigenous peoples are celebrated by PHM. We are determined to keep pointing out that the climate crisis is a result of a damaging legacy of extractivism that continues unabated and threatens all our health.

The strength of PHM has and always will be our clear political economic analysis which shines a spotlight on the extractive capitalist system which threatens all our health and well being. Equally important is the commitment and passion of PHM activists around the globe working to establish democratic economic and political systems that truly support health.

This year on World Health Day we are highlighting writings from two of PHM’s late leaders – David Sanders and Amit Sengupta. Both inspired PHM in life when they produced cutting-edge analysis and threw themselves whole-heartedly into the struggle for health. They continue to inspire us in our ongoing struggles which see us pitted against powerful corporate forces and economic systems that can only give us health for some, and that too for the more privileged. We demand wholesale change to those systems as the only way to achieve health for all and we welcome everyone to join the struggle for health.

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Fran Baum and Sulakshana Nandi are Co-Chairs of the People’s Health Movement, Global Steering Council.