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Global health: The times they are a-changing

By Amit Sengupta – July 12, 2012

Walking down the streets of Cape Town with hundreds of global health movement activists from over 90 countries, it all looked so familiar. Twelve years ago, we had come together in Bangladesh, and had marched down the streets of Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka, giving rise to the People’s Health Movement (PHM).

At the Third PHM Assembly in July 2012, activists were full of purpose and resolve, at the same time as celebratory and forward-looking. Held in the somber backdrop of the global crisis, it served to consolidate the movement’s advances and to envision a different future for the countless people being consigned today to leading a life that is unfulfilling, unhealthy and lacking in meaningful opportunities for human development.

Celebrating health alternatives

Some 1,000 delegates gathered in Cape Town for plenary sessions and workshops to better understand the global political, social and economic architecture, and propose alternatives.

Gabriel Garcia denounced a world in which the health of financial systems is more important than people´s health and that of their communities. Ron Labonte and David Woodward both underlined the urgency to bring about change and cautioned that it cannot be cosmetic: We need change that is informed by new economics based on real value, which maximizes benefits to people’s lives, not financial profit and economic growth.

Currently, the supposed drivers of development, trade and aid, contribute to the growing marginalization of entire communities. The perverse global system produces and reproduces physical and social environments which destroy health.

Fernanda Solis reminded us that it is not possible to improve health and welfare for communities surrounded by sick ecosystems. We need to reverse the systematic manner in which health systems have been torn apart while being divorced from the essential ‘public’ logic of health and health care.

Health as a human right

Lois Reynold stressed that we need to look at primary health care as an approach to health – rather than as a level – that sees it as a basic human right and a worldwide social goal. It is not just a technical issue but a social and political one based on solidarity and collective values rather than centered on the individual.

While there are worrying stories of national health systems being taken apart as in the UK or Greece, promising alternatives are taking hold in countries like El Salvador which adopted reforms to guarantee all citizens the right to health or Brazil which is promoting health as an integral part of democracy.

Testimonies from the occupy movement in the US, the Arab spring, and the Greek resistance gave the audience hope and renewed resolve. The Cape Town Call to Action reflects that, outlining an alternate vision to guide the movement.

As we marched together down the streets of Cape Town, I saw resolve and concern, but also the celebration of solidarity, of togetherness, in the faces around me. Similar, yet different from Savar in Bangladesh, 12 years back. Different because what was a dream in Savar, what started emerging as a possibility in the Second Assembly in Cuenca, Ecuador, in 2005, has now matured into the beginnings of a truly global movement.  

"The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin'
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'."

Amit Sengupta is Associate Coordinator of the People’s Health Movement and General Secretary of the All India Peoples Science Network, Delhi, India. He is also a member of the Municipal Services Project’s Steering Committee.