Capitalism is the greatest threat to public health, warn researchers and activists

During the opening of the 19th conference of the International Association of Health Policy Europe, academics and activists warned that capitalism remains biggest threat to human and planetary health

September 23, 2023 by Peoples Health Dispatch
International Association of Health Policy Europe
Scenes from the 19th conference of the International Association of Health Policy Europe. Photo: IPHU Thessaloniki

From September 21 to 24, Thessaloniki is hosting the 19th conference of the International Association of Health Policy Europe (IAHPE) at what one of the organizers, Alexis Benos, defined an “unfortunately timely moment.” As Greece grapples with the effects of devastating floods and anti-worker labor law reforms, it is time to address the main cause of similar crises rippling through Europe: capitalism, said Benos.

The IAHPE conference holds a special importance for academics and activists in Europe, as it is a rare space where anti-capitalist theory meets practical examples of social struggles against austerity policies and the commodification of health. These trends have deeply changed the health landscape in the region, as access to health care continues to plummet, working conditions in the sector are in decline, and spaces for discussion about health are taken over by the corporate sector.

Unlike most conferences dedicated to health, the IAHPE event was organized without relying on corporate donors. “Organizing a conference on the effects of capitalism on health care, with the participation of academics, trade unions and people’s movements, and to do all that outside of the market sphere, is a true feat,” said Elias Kondilis, a member of the organization committee. It would not have been possible without the dedication of dozens of volunteers who prepared the conference for more than a year.

The intersection of research and activism that makes this event stand out in the mass of health conferences is reflected both in the organization’s history and in its current format. When the global organization of IAHPE was launched, it heavily relied on the anti-war movement surrounding the US war in Vietnam, recalled Hans Ulrich Deppe and Asa Christina Laurell, two of the organization’s senior militants. Following the same path, this year’s conference was built by a group made of students and faculty who share a strong bond with the local social movements.

In addition to bringing together theory and practice, IAHPE’s events are also specific because they do not hesitate to state that capitalism is the biggest danger to health. By insisting on this claim, and publishing the evidence to prove this, the organization did a “needed thing,” said Vicente Navarro, a leading scholar on the social, political and economic determinants of health.

Although the devastating effects of commercialization and marketization on health have been proven over and over again, the trend persists. The most worrying practices continue to persist in the United States, where private equity is swiftly taking over health care, as Steffie Wollhandler illustrated during the inaugural lecture of the conference.

The trend consists of buying health entities, including physicians’ practices, “using debt that is transferred onto the books of the acquired entity,” she explained. This burdens the practice or hospital that has been bought with interest costs. In combination with other profit-maximizing strategies, like selling out infrastructure or transforming the hospitals and practices into chains, this leads to their collapse and sell-off, leaving people without access to the care they need.

While the practice might still seem hazy, data shows that private equity currently holds 1,300 women’s health practices in the US. It also owns 4% of hospitals and 11% of nursing homes, warned Wollhandler. In order to stop the spread of the trend in the US and beyond, the work of IAHPE and its supporting organizations remains crucial, she said.

People’s Health Dispatch is a fortnightly bulletin published by the People’s Health Movement and Peoples Dispatch. For more articles and to subscribe to People’s Health Dispatch, click here.