World Health Day 2021 and the politics of building a healthier world

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The World Health Organization (WHO) has announced World Health Day 2021 as being the year to focus on building a fairer and healthier world, but what exactly does this entail and what does it mean for the years to come? 

Each year on April 7, the WHO commemorates the founding of its organization by celebrating World Health Day — a day aimed to raise awareness and address a specific health-related issue and a priority area of concern for the WHO. 

From its inception at the First Health Assembly in 1948, and since commencing in 1950, the past 50 years have brought attention to significant issues such as mental health, climate change, maternal and child care. The celebration is marked by activities that extend beyond the day itself and serves as an opportunity to focus worldwide attention on these important aspects of global health.

As stated by the WHO: “We live in a word that is unequal, and this is not only unfair, but also unpreventable. We are calling on world leaders to monitor health inequities and to make sure that all people have living and working conditions that are conducive to good health, as well as to ensuring that everyone is able to access quality health services when and where they need them.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has left many individuals without access to many of the social determinants of health such as a proper income, access to food, or adequate housing, to name a few. The increase in poverty, food insecurity, and social and health inequalities have led to the loss of opportunities for people to get the help they need to prevail.

This pandemic has also changed the outlook of so many individuals on what it truly means to be healthy, especially with regards to gaining access to resources and services. 

Dr. Claudia Chaufan is a medical doctor, researcher, and health professor at York’s Faculty of Health. She shares her knowledge and insights with us on some of the ways in which progressions can be made in the healthcare system — including how to address the politics of healthcare policies, which is not often discussed in conversations about bettering the system. 

Dr. Chaufan explains that it’s integral to create a world where support for better health development is one of the top priorities, since it is certainly not the type of world we currently live in.

“We need to focus on the politics of who determines the policies we get, and the politics is based on a world class system that is now organized to best serve the interests of the capitalist class globally, nationally, and locally,” explains Chaufan. “So the capitalist class interests are the ones being served, as well as the interests of the former colonial powers who, once they let go of the colonies, have now established neocolonial relationships with other countries. 

“The unequal terms of the international system is a significant matter that is to be taken into consideration as well, as it is not based on inequalities among nations. Some nations are above others and within those nations themselves there is a class structure. It is the critical analysis of these policies that reveal the hidden politics that is not being discussed which is colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, neo-imperialism, and capitalism.”

Marwa Sakhizada, a fourth-year health informatics student, says, “So many people have lost their jobs, homes, and businesses, to say the least. With the continuous lockdowns happening we’ve all been stuck in quarantine, leaving ourselves to reflect on the future and how to better our lives.”

Another reality that the pandemic has shown, according to Chaufan, is that some individuals and communities are able to live healthier than others and have better access to services. 

“This is entirely due to the conditions they reside under, so the WHO is committed to ensuring that everyone everywhere in the world can realize their right to good health. However, we live in a world where class structure matters and there are people who own the wealth and people who do not, as well as those in the middle,” says Chaufan. 

“It would be fantastic to have a very powerful lobby for more social justice and better health. Telling people to eat their fruits and vegetables, and promoting healthy behaviors does not work when there are people working and living in such terrible conditions. What if you cannot eat healthy because you cannot afford to and the food production is in the hands of major corporations?”

Chaufan introduces us to a research article titled, “What we mean by social determinants of health” by Vicente Navarro, a Spanish sociologist and political scientist with over 30 years worth of experience as a Professor of Health and Public Policy at Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Navarro also outlines how we must focus on the political aspect of health policies in order to build a “fairer, healthier world.” 

Dr. Navarro saluted the establishment of the WHO Commission on the Social Determinants of Health and welcomed its analysis and recommendations, stating that their report goes a long way in denouncing the social constraints on the development of health, but also discussed where the report fell short.

According to Dr. Navarro, it is not inequalities that kill, but those who benefit from the inequalities that kill. The Commission’s avoidance of the topic of power (class power, as well as gender, race, and national power), and how power is produced/reproduced in political institutions is the report’s greatest weakness. 

“The depoliticized image of health that we get as observers is not helpful to calling people to political action to produce a world with greater social justice, which can then be translated to healthier lives,” says Chaufan.

“The lack of attention to the politics underlying the production of a world that could promote health for all is what we need to focus on. The policies contribute to a better environment, but they are politically driven and that is what is missing when we have these discussions.” 

According to Dr. Navarro, the lack of attention to the politics of power reproduces a widely held practice in international agencies that speaks of policies without touching on politics. It does emphasize, in generic terms, the need to redistribute resources, but it is silent on the topic of whose resources, and how and through what instruments. It is profoundly apolitical.

As a result of this class structure, this year on World Health Day, Sakhizada says she will be focusing on being grateful for the opportunities she has been given. “This pandemic has taught each of us so many life lessons and made us so much more grateful for what we have.” 

However, these issues are often forgotten in conversations about bettering health policies. There are so many individuals who struggle with obtaining what suits their needs. Yet, when it comes to implementing the proper policies to create better lives and analyzing the politics of current policies in the healthcare system, they are forgotten.

The depoliticized image of health is what needs to be addressed in order to produce a world where social justice can be translated into a healthier world.  

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By Sarah Taleghani

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Jordan Mark

Hi Sarah! Building the necessary political coalitions to enact meaningful social change is absolutely essential in order for society to emerge stronger from this moment in time. Your article does a great job in spotlighting this growing need in the field of health.

As both Dr. Chaufan and Dr. Navarro indicated throughout your article, there are significant challenges when it comes to the politics of healthcare. Dr. Navarro in particular made a point about those who benefit from inequalities being responsible for low public health outcomes rather than inequality itself that I found to be quite illuminating.

Such a claim is a bold one to make and it also raises several questions in regards to both the economics of healthcare as well the ethical/moral obligations that must be embedded into any conversation surrounding global health.

Of course both the healthcare system and politics of the healthcare/global health are immensely complex. Attempting to cover such wide ranging topics is a challenging one as I can personally relate to given how extensively those topics were covered in my undergrad.

Given what I know from my own education background in political science, I must commend you for the work you put into your article to highlight the need for social action in the field of healthcare.Your article is an example of the kind of interdisciplinary work that is necessary to bring about meaningful change in the world and I am pleased to have found it.