A unique historical moment to look at global health, with a special look at Iraq after more than twenty years of war
By Claudia Lefko Common Dreams November 10, 2014
War destroys countless lives immediately, but it also destroys health systems and key social structures, turning societies once able to nurture health and save lives, into societies stripped of that ability. "It's basic and obvious, hidden in plain sight," writes Lefko.
One of the most serious problems Iraqis have been living with as a result of war and western imperialism is the disatrous decline of health and health care capacity. It has become one of those long-standing crisis that are so familiar they've become ordinary, like poverty and food insecurity. These situations, lives lived in these circumstances, become normalized—"normal" in the public view and public discourse. Even, it may seem, normal to the people directly affected. But the situation in Iraq is not normal, there is very little about life in Baghdad in the last decades that can be seen as normal.
One aspect of the health crisis is the ever-increasing cancer rate in Iraq. It has become the norm; normal is not newsworthy. Newsworthy events—ongoing violence and sectarian struggles—push cancer and health out of the headlines and out of the news altogether. And so the crisis is missing from the media and generally speaking, missing from the agenda of activists and international health organizations.
Enter ISIS and Ebola, putting health and Iraq and crisis back into the news, creating a unique opportunity to look at Iraq and Iraqis beyond the headline-grabbing topics of war and western imperialism to one that concerns daily life and impacts the very future of life in that country and in every country suffering from a natural disaster such as an epidemic or from human-made disasters such as war: health.
For some years now, prominent doctors, medical organizations and institutions such as Partners in Health (PIH) have been talking about the critical importance of "life on the ground" factors that influence health. And even more importantly, they have been initiating and implementing projects based on a holistic, human rights approach and encouraging others to do the same. PIH has been promoting support for international covenants that guarantee health as a human right, understanding that the health of individuals and communities is directly impacted by other guaranteed rights: adequate housing, education, food, social security, decent work, and "the right to the highest standard of physical and mental health."
In the background of the Ebola crisis, quietly day by day, the US and others are bombing in Iraq and Syria; no one is talking about how this will impact health or the health care system in those countries. In the case of Iraq, the question is how it will further exacerbate the already disastrous and ever-deteriorating health situation that has been developing over the last twenty four years, since the First Gulf War and UN Sanctions in 1990.
The country once had the best medical care in the Middle East. It was a modern country, with modern facilities and infrastructure. Social and economic policies supported other aspects of life that contributed to a healthy population: free and mandatory education through university, affordable housing, ample food availability and high employment, guaranteed by government subsidized jobs. Most, if not all of this is long gone. It shouldn't surprise anyone. As the famous poster said, back in the 60s, War is not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things. Another obvious truth gathering dust in closets all over the USA.
Ebola is a serious disease that demands our best attentions at this moment. But, war is also a serious disease that has been taking a toll on millions of people. In places too numerous and painful to list... Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to name a few. It also demands our best attentions. "...the present global health crisis is not primarily one of disease, but of governance," writes global health consultant Ilona Kickbush.
I am heartened by the critical work of these medical professionals and organizations. It gives us, as activists and agitated citizens, a powerful platform to stand on. Collectively, this is an important moment. In the aftermath of the huge climate change actions across the globe, we have an opportunity to create new alliances, with new possibilities. Our job is to find, maintain and maximize the connections that will aggregate our struggles in support of healthy people living on a healthy planet.