Fran Baum: Demanding health for all now

Fran Baum

The Third People’s Health Assembly got off to a rousing start yesterday with a plenary session addressed by the South African Minister of Health, Aaron Motsoaledi, who spoke of the impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic on his country  and also by Pat Anderson, chairperson of the Australian Lowitja Institute, who spoke passionately about the struggle of Aboriginal Australians to regain control over their land and of the health impact of centuries of dispossession and repression. The slogan of the Third People’s Health Assembly is “health for all now!” which harks back to World Health Organization’s unmet vision of health for all by the year 2000. It was fitting that the opening ceremony included a message from the Emeritus Director General of the WHO, Halfdan Mahler, who over saw the HFA2000 strategy and who stated that the People’s Health Movement (PHM) is now the loudest global voice for health equity.

The assembly is attended by around 800 people from 90 countries. There is a real buzz with rooms full of health activists discussing their on-going campaigns to promote health equity and comparing notes across national borders about the trheats to health and ways of challenging and overcoming these threats. Overwhelmingly, the discussion is about the imoact of economic and political factors on health.  A plenary on 7 July was on “The Global Political and Economic context of Health.” Ron Labonte, University of Ottawa, depressed everyone with his analysis of what he called neo-liberalism 3.0 and the ways in which neo-liberalism has occupied the state to make it safe for neo-liberalism. Zackie Achmat, South Africa, spoke passionately about the Treatment Action Campaign’s fight for affordable drugs for people living with HIV/AIDS. HIV positive himself he refused any treatment until it was available as part of public health service provision. His address was greeted by much foot stamping and singing in support of his message from his South African colleagues. Hugo Ico Peron from Guatemala spoke of the importance of learning from indigenous people about how to care for the land and environment. All in all an inspiring plenary session showing the importance of people’s passion combined with acute analysis in the struggle for health.

This afternoon’s plenary was on Africa and speaker after speaker detailed the raw deal that Africa gets in the global political economy—less than its fair share of all resources, including doctors, income, health, and food. Coming from Australia, one of the world’s rich countries, I can only hang my head in shame at the way rich countries have ripped off Africa over the last four centuries and have lived lifestyles that have depended on this rip off!  A very detailed presentation from Di McIntyre, University of Cape Town, showed evidence that community-based insurance is regressive and inefficient—the costs of collecting it often exceed the contributions—and that publicly funded health systems funded by progressive taxation is the fairest system of providing healthcare.

The weather in Cape Town is quite cold and there is a lot of rain, but this is doing nothing to dampen the spirits of the delegates. The assembly is alive with people working out ways of changing the current world order so that it is truly able to support people’s health and does so in a way that does not cost the earth’s environment. The PHM has country circles in over 45 countries and these circles work on local campaigns to promote the economic, social, and political conditions for health. The assembly is its peak body which meets to discuss strategies and confirm the overall directions of the PHM. During the course of the assembly a Cape Town call to action is being drafted and will be presented to the final plenary session for endorsement.

Fran Baum is a professor of public health. She is the director of the Southgate Institute of Health, Society, and Equity, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia and co-chair of the Global Steering Committee, People’s Health Movement. She is an Australian Research Council Federation fellow.