Global Health and Social Inequality

(Note: I read a substantial amount of Epic Measures before I began writing this entry. I have attempted, however, to write this while focusing mainly on what I know outside of the book.)

I have little specific knowledge about global health, but there are a lot of things that come to mind when I consider what I do know about the topic. I think about the various panics over disease that have occurred over the past several years, some of which seem more justified than others. I think about diseases I have heard of that range widely in virulence and severity; for example, the concerns over the swine flu pandemic back in 2009, and the worries about ebola in West Africa over the past few years. Especially for the latter, I remember how concerns about the disease were distorted in the media in the Western world; I recall a friend of mine talking about how her mother worried about ebola in Kenya although it was largely limited to a few countries in West Africa (Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone), on the opposite side of the continent from Kenya. I also recall reading a Newsweek article in an African history class my sophomore year, which played on stereotypes of Africa to generate fear of transmission of ebola in the United States. American opinions on the outbreak were, in some ways, tinged by prejudice or ignorance regarding Africa as a whole.

I also consider the ways that certain health issues may not receive as much attention as they deserve. I think about how, in the less immediately recent past, the AIDS crisis in the 1980s was not effectively addressed when it was perceived as a disease limited to stigmatized populations, particularly gay men. It seems to me that the ways we respond to disease may be heavily influenced by societal prejudices. Anxieties about ebola were linked to Americans’ perceptions of Africans, and stigmatization of AIDS was linked to homophobia.

Of course, global health concerns are not limited strictly to infectious diseases. There are also issues like world hunger and the degree to which people in different parts of the world and/or different social classes have access to food. And the water crisis in Flint, Michigan that came to light over the past couple of weeks shows that major health concerns can be deeply tied into issues such as race and class, and created or intensified by the actions that governments take which may be influenced by such factors. So, although I do not have any substantive background in health, this leads me to think that the general public’s knowledge of global health is probably less than objective and affected by other prejudices and social factors that we may not be consciously aware of. This makes me hesitant to choose any particular health issues that I might be aware of as the most pressing, because I think it would require more knowledge than I have.

Additionally, I wonder how one would view attitudes toward global health through the lens of disability studies. I have been learning more about disability studies over the past couple of years, although I have never formally studied it. From what I know about it, though, it seems important to consider the differences between the ways that disabled and able-bodied people conceive of disability, and how our society constructs disability as undesirable in ways that may be harmful and unproductive. It would be useful to look at social models of disability that place responsibility on society to accommodate and include disabled people, as opposed to medical models that place the entire responsibility on the individual to conform to a society built for able-bodied people. In my view, it would be important for measures that address global health to take this into account and not add to the stigmatization and marginalization of disabled people. I hesitate to draw any firm conclusions about the most important issues in global health at the moment, but we need to keep in mind what we do not know and the biases that we might not be aware that we have.

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