World economic events: their implications for health

As I write, much of the information rich world is focussed on the precarious state of the highly interrelated global financial structures. For many others, the daily struggle to survive, coupled with lack of access to minute-to-minute updates about these unsettling events, means they remain unaware of the economic drama unfolding around the world. This, unfortunately, will not protect them from the inevitable fallout of these disturbing developments.

The relationship between health and poverty is well established. The reliance of a large proportion of the world’s population on cheap food has been brought into stark relief by  food riots in a number of countries, sparked by rising food prices and the hunger and fear this inevitably evokes.

Even in so-called emerging markets- those parts of the world like China and India where growth far outstrips that in older more established industrial economies- there is rising concern about what a collapse of the financial system would mean for these fledging economies.

So as politicians in Washington struggle to find it within themselves to vote for an expensive bailout that might lose them their jobs come the November US elections, I wonder if it is anything other than naive to ask them to contemplate the human dimension, within and well beyond America, of their decisions. To echo a well worn metaphor, if America catches pneumonia not only will the world sneeze but many many people around the world will find themselves out of work, unable to eat and care for themselves and their families, and life expectancy for the poorest and most vulnerable in all parts of the world will shorten. 

So what has this got to do with medical humanities, other than the fact that economic considerations are an important part of the broader context with which medical humanities scholars concern themselves? I’m not sure I’ve got a convincing answer to that question but here’s one suggestion as to why this might at least be an issue that medical humanities scholars think worth incorporating into public and professional discourse about human health.

One of the consequences of globalisation is an increasing interdependence of all the peoples of the world. In spite of this there seems to be limited understanding, even in countries with relatively educated and informed populations, about how decisions made at one end of the world can all too easily affect the health and well-being of people at the other. In the current financial turmoil, the decisions of politicians in Washington and elsewhere look likely to either mitigate or  accentuate the spiral of job losses, poverty and ill-health that will, it appears, inevitably follow.

The politicians making these decisions are right to fear a voter backlash in their own countries. It is in many ways a no-win situation. Requests to ‘not shoot the messenger’ have rarely been heeded by those imminent suffering the news foretells. Which doesn’t give the politicians and policy makers an excuse to place their personal interests above those of the rest of mankind. It just makes it harder not to.

Medical Humanities

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