Consistent and high-quality healthcare is not a luxury. Our health is a fundamental human right. There’s perhaps not much disagreement with this assertion — at least, not theoretically.
When it comes to reality, however, the opposite is very much the case. By any objective measure, our global health system is failing the most vulnerable members of the human race and failing them abjectly. From food insecurity and malnutrition to the scourge of preventable diseases and premature death, global health inequities are real, they are pervasive, and they are rectifiable.
The issue is not about goodwill, depth of commitment, or better planning and allocation of resources. The issue is one of social justice and systemic change.
The rise of COVID-19 has taught the world a powerful but painful lesson on humanity’s vulnerability to communicable diseases. Regardless of who you are or where you live, no one is wholly safe from the threat of a pandemic.
And, as we’ve learned all too well, pandemics are not only pernicious risks to human health but also to national and international economies. Despite the recognized threat of pandemics, however, nations the world over continue to pursue policies that only increase our global risks. This includes on-going encroachment in and development of wildlife zones, increasing human contact with animals that may be vectors of communicable diseases.
Globally, the coronavirus pandemic has also illustrated the prevalence of health disparities related to economic and social conditions. In the United States, for example, minority populations, women, and low-income individuals are at greater risk of contracting the virus and of suffering poor outcomes from it.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, for example, Blacks and Latinos have nearly 5 times the risk of hospitalization from COVID-19 than do whites. This imbalance has been largely attributed to more pervasive disparities in access to consistent, quality healthcare, as well as an increased prevalence of risk factors, such as heart disease and diabetes. Additionally, certain minority populations are more likely to be essential workers and are also less likely to work in jobs that allow for telecommuting.
Mitigating the threat of infectious disease, both in developing and developed nations, then, necessitates a multipronged approach that is simultaneously social, environmental, and economic.
Poverty, Food Insecurity, and Malnutrition,
One of the biggest threats to human health is food insecurity. According to a 2016 report from the United Nations, more than 800 million people worldwide are chronically undernourished. A disproportionate number of those affected, the studies show, live in the developing regions of sub-Saharan Africa, India, and parts of Latin America.
Worryingly, inequities in the global food supply are only predicted to increase as the population soars to an expected 8.5 billion people by 2030. This will further increase the pressure on the global food system. And as demand increases, reserves will decline, with those most affected by global food shortages, the impoverished populations of the Global South, feeling the effects first and most painfully.
These disparities are driven not only by the pervasive economic inequities under which these regions labor but also by the persistence of a food system plagued by waste and inefficiency. According to recent estimates, for instance, nearly a third of all food produced is wasted due to poor harvesting and transportation. This equates to more than 1.3 billion tons of edible food needlessly lost, at an estimated value of roughly $1 trillion.
Sustainability practices targeted at eliminating food waste, including initiatives aimed at local food sourcing, can help get fresh, affordable, and nutritious foods into the bellies of those who need it most. In the process, the general health of communities most affected by food insecurity can be expected to improve. This will not only decrease morbidity and mortality rates directly linked to malnutrition and starvation, but also reduce the prevalence of comorbidities, such as susceptibility to communicable diseases and acquired infections related to inadequate nutrition.
Food insecurity and malnutrition aren’t just “Third World” challenges, however. These are also threats endemic to countless communities in the “First World.”
The health consequences, though, differ significantly insofar as food insecurity in developed countries is often equated with the consumption of energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods that are inexpensive, accessible, and loaded with sugar, salt, and fat. The result is an epidemic of obesity, type II diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease among those living in these so-called “food deserts.”
The Pain Epidemic
It has been estimated that more than 3 million people in the US and over 16 million people worldwide have experienced opioid use disorder (OUD). Unfortunately, this is only a snapshot of the threat posed by substance abuse disorders.
The prevalence of these disorders can be attributed to the general inadequacy of global mental healthcare, with more than 65% of countries spending 1% or less on mental healthcare. At the same time as national health systems worldwide are failing to detect and effectively treat those with underlying mental health challenges, many are also allowing citizens to live with uncontrolled pain. Thus the stage is set for sufferers to abuse substances as a last resort for managing their physical and mental distress.
Addressing the pain epidemic, however, requires a significant enhancement of mental healthcare systems worldwide. At the same time, however, the combined influence of the pharmaceutical industry and food and drug regulators, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must be mitigated to open healthcare to patient-centered and patient-directed alternative practices. For example, despite increasing empirical evidence of the effectiveness of kratom in reducing pain, the FDA continues to pursue its efforts to make the plant illegal and to remove it from the market.
Health is neither a privilege nor a gift. It is an index of global justice, a marker of how free and equitable we truly are as a human family. And yet myriad health risks continue to threaten communities worldwide, from food insecurity to infectious disease to chronic pain. In the 21st century, there is no reason why all humans should not have the opportunity to enjoy consistent and high-quality healthcare and, in the end, to enjoy the long and healthy lives that are their birthright.