Politics can have serious consequences for health. We need look no further than the US legislature for examples of the politics of health. The recent deeply partisan budget cuts threatened women’s health across the country and debates over the Health Care Bill easily demonstrates a democracy’s inability to provide basic health for everyone in its population. Other examples come from the USDA’s support for corporate farms over the population’s health needs amidst the growing obesity epidemic. Some of the best examples of health being politicized come from our own government, yet we rarely have to think about how the form of our government and political system has an impact on our health.
Whether it is a democracy or a dictatorship, politics influences health. Cuba has long held a spot as one of the top national health care systems as well as one of the top countries for medical education. Their system is completely government-run with no private companies controlling hospitals or clinics. Cuba has been innovative with their computerized system for blood banks, patient records, etc. However, their government is a dictatorship and this has created some negative effects on health (depending on who you talk to). During the 1990s, the loss of Soviet subsidies combined with other political and economic factors created a countrywide famine. Manuel Franco describes the Special Period as,
“the first, and probably the only, natural experiment, born of unfortunate circumstances, where large effects on diabetes, cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality have been related to sustained population-wide weight loss as a result of increased physical activity and reduced caloric intake”.
Recently we have seen the horrifying impacts of dictators and authoritarian regimes crushing their own health care systems at the expense of their populations. In Libya, health workers have been shot at, ambulances have been bombed, and hospitals have been razed. Gadhafi has ruled Libya since leading a bloodless coup d’etat against the then King of Libya.
In nearby Syria, similar atrocities have been committed. A recent video from the protest against the Syrian government showed a pro-government Doctor beating an injured protester out of an ambulance. The main hospital in Deraa has reportedly received 37 bodies of protesters killed. Syria is officially a republic with a constitution and elected leaders. The real story is of a country run by one party handed from father to son that has been governed under “The Emergency Law” which suspends constitutional protections since 1963.
Chris Albon, author of Conflict Health, wrote an informative piece on how the protests in Bahrain are centered on the health care system. Protesters seeking refuge in the hospitals have been denied treatment by government troops and ambulances have been blocked. He notes a new report from Doctors without Borders that says, “the government has attacked and militarized the health system, making protesters and bystanders afraid to seek treatment.” Bahrain is a constitutional monarchy where people have long protested over their lack of personal rights and freedoms.
In another example of the difficulties of democratic politics to support health, Nigeria’s recent elections have fueled intense fighting across the country. Hospitals reported that over 300 people were seen for bullet wounds. The ethnic and religious divisions in Nigeria have long plagued efforts to build a unified democracy. Nigeria’s history of military rule and oil wealth has also exacerbated these divisions. When a democracy can’t hold elections without widespread violence, how can they provide health for their people?
Both dictators and democracies have the potential to instigate situations that have serious health impacts. Whether it is frivolous debate or armed conflict, the politicization of health has lead to serious health deficits around the world. No matter what country you live in there is always room for development when it comes to providing for the health of a population.
Featured on the American for Informed Democracy Blog, where I’m writing as a Global Health Analyst.