April 7, 2021

Health is a Human Right

Jan van Aken

Today is World Health Day, an annual reminder that we have still a long way to go to reach Health for All. It is indeed remarkable that the WHO uses this opportunity to point out today how social injustice strongly determines a person’s health status. A fact that is brutally revealed also in the current pandemic.

As of today, there are many low-income countries with hardly any Covid-19 vaccine available. But also, within richer countries we do see a strong impact of poverty and social conditions on health. In New York, for example, higher rates of Covid-19 infection and mortality among Black and Hispanic Americans could be backtracked to lower living and working conditions.

And beyond Covid-19, we see it all the time: people dying of a disease in one country that is preventable and curable in another country with better access to health care. Or take life expectancy data within one country: In Germany, for example, man from high income households live five years longer than man with lower incomes. Five years! Social justice is a matter of life and death.

Lives over profits!

The WHO rightly points out: “This is not only unfair – It is preventable!” We have to address the root causes of health inequality. The first and foremost is to fight profiteering in the health sector. Privatization of hospitals, pharmaceutical industry’s greedy pricing, the ever-increasing influence of private entities on global health decisions – all these are issues at the core of the current unjust health systems worldwide.

In the past, we fought for  – and we won! – affordable prices for AIDS-drugs, now we campaign to bring down patent-barriers that keep people around the globe from getting the Covid-19 vaccine or treatment they need to stay alive.

There is one thing we must not forget: Who paid for the basic research and development of the Covid-19 tests, drugs and vaccines? Billions of taxpayer’s dollars were used to develop them, and now private companies earn a fortune, depriving less wealthy countries and individuals of much needed treatment. For a just access to health care, we need to ensure that we get public return on public investment.

And let’s not forget: This pandemic is not over for anyone until it is over for everyone. If only a few countries can vaccinate their people, new mutants will constantly arise in other parts of the world and threaten to prolong the pandemic everywhere.

The current pandemic also shows how much the health of our people depend on a healthy environment and healthy food (production). Many of the new and emerging diseases – from Ebola to Sars and Covid-19 – are rooted in either biodiversity degradation or factory farming, or both.

A healthy future for all of us will be based on social and environmental justice. Let’s go for it!