Advancing European health amidst global crises

5 December 2011

“2011 could go down in history as the time when the quest for greater social equality became a mass-media story and a high-level political imperative,” said Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organisation, alluding to how the Arab Spring uprisings had altered the face of the Middle East.

“The unrest has been blamed on inequality,” for example in terms of income, as well as a lack of opportunities for young people, said Chan, who was delivering the Annual Lecture of the European Policy Centre’s Coalition for Health, Ethics and Society (CHES) initiative.

“The uprisings aren’t just an Arab thing. We’ve seen strikes and demonstrations all over the world – for example in many European cities – and ‘Occupy Wall Street’ too,” she said.

“We’re seeing the symptoms of a deep-seated social malaise that has spread nearly everywhere, like a dense fog,” Chan claimed. 

She cited recent natural disasters like droughts, floods and the Japanese tsunami, hunger and starvation in the Horn of Africa, unprecedented financial losses among the middle classes, and massive challenges facing disaster relief and humanitarian aid in dangerous parts of the world among the problems that the world had grappled with in 2011.

Chan said it was no surprise to see uprisings break out all over the world given that protestors were merely seeking basic human rights, dignity and a chance to secure jobs with wages they can live on.

“In some of these countries, GDP has grown steadily, year after year, but more and more people there are falling below the poverty line: this is inequality,” the WHO director-general lamented.

The fact that discontent and social malaise is so widespread proves that “our world is in a mess,” Chan claimed. “We’re living in a world beset by one global crisis after another. We’re living in a season – a winter season – of broken promises,” in which all sense of responsibility to serve society’s best interests has “vanished into thin air,” she said.

Describing the world as “dangerously out of balance,” Chan said variations in income levels, opportunities and health outcomes were “greater today than at any time in recent history”.

“Globalisation was not, after all, the rising tide that would lift all boats. Instead, it tended to lift the bigger boats, and swamp or sink many smaller ones,” Chan said.

“International banks encouraged debt-ridden countries to reduce spending on social services, resulting in sharp cuts to publicly-financed health services. Market forces, we were told, would then operate to expand coverage,” the WHO chief said.

“That never happened. Instead, coverage shrank, along with overall use of health services,” she lamented.

“Numerous countries watched their government-run health services fall into disarray, forcing impoverished people to pay private practitioners high fees for routine care, while the best care and services were reserved for the privileged few,” Chan remarked.

Amidst all this, “Europe somehow looked smarter than the rest of the world, somehow shielded by its social policies,” the WHO director-general declared.

But now health care in Europe is at risk too, as European governments grapple with the debt crisis and public finances for all social services continue to shrink.

Chan laid the blame for Europe’s woes squarely at the feet of the financial system.

“That system had run wild, cut off from any obligation to society, from any concern about the impact of reckless practices on the lives of ordinary people,” she said, citing losses of homes, jobs and incomes for people everywhere among the worst consequences of the financial sector’s actions.

The financial crisis taught us that corporate profits and economic growth were not, after all, the be-all, end-all and cure-for-all that they had been feted as, the WHO chief argued.

She claimed that the international community trusts the WHO to take decisions in the interests of health and development, and to take care not to neglect poorer populations.

Chan hailed the success of international agreements in the WHO despite the simultaneous failure of global efforts to fight climate change and liberalise world trade.

She expressed her strong conviction that Europe would continue to maintain its “outstandingly high quality of life” in the face of a changing climate, more frequent extreme weather events, soaring healthcare costs, rising public expectations of care and shrinking health budgets: all at a time when the baby-boomer generation was approaching retirement.

To achieve this, European health programmes must demonstrate value for money, showing a thirst for efficiency and an intolerance of waste, Chan said.

She argued that Europe must also do much more to stimulate innovation, not least by supporting the European Commission’s flagship ‘Innovation Union’ initiative, which should boost innovation with a social purpose.