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Social Justice

Altruism vs. Capitalism: Obstacles in restructuring Africa’s health care system

“Let me tell you a story about life, death and profit. It involves some of the poorest countries in the world and some of the richest companies. It goes to the heart of how the modern world is to be run and whether the institutions set up to police the global economy are up to the job.

Eleven million people in poor countries will die from infectious diseases this year. Put a different way, it means that by the time you finish reading this column 100 people will have died. Half of them will be children aged under five.” — Larry Elliott, Evil triumphs in a sick society, Guardian, February 12, 2001

Photo retrieved from: deborahswallow.com

Allow me to administer you a sobering slap to the face, and remind you of the reality surrounding much of the developing world. Diseases which have been near-eradicated in the Western world, are running rampant in developing countries, propagating poverty and poor living conditions, enabling a vicious, inescapable cycle of destitution and weakened immune systems. In many parts of the developing world, the prevalence of diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS are just as a common as, well, the common cold. And they have no means of effectively combating the rapid spread of such infections; in fact, one billion people in the world are deprived of access to any sort of health care system at all.

The effect these diseases have on developing countries are crippling and result in a drastic loss of productivity. It prevents children from attending school, and adults from going to work. Treatments, if available, are often wildly unaffordable. Poor living conditions and absence of basic health services inevitably lead to reduced immunological response. However, the consequences of infectious disease in these countries reaches far past immediate health effects and death tolls; it overshadows economies and political foundations.

Following the African economy crisis in the 1980s, many of its countries forfeited control of their domestic spending priorities to the World Bank and IMF. Africa’s health care infrastructure has since disintegrated severely, leaving many of its countries unable to deal with the impact of poverty resultant disease. The lack of medical resources and breakdown in communication between health care providers and government have critically impeded efforts to restructure the health care system, which has since become privatized. Africa’s widely privatized health care system comprises of a two-tier platform, resulting in health services becoming another commodity reserved for the wealthy and further increasing the drastic gap between the rich and the poor.

Photo retrieved from: aefjn.org

Despite the exorbitant price of these services, privatized health care in African countries is simply frivolous when considering the nature of the basic health needs that arise in this continent. The private health sector is not able to respond to such vast demands for fundamental medical aid at such a widespread level. Africa needs adequate education and epidemic prevention initiatives, and the private health sector is unable to provide that on such a large scale.

The cruel irony is, the poverty and increasing debt which is exacerbated by the widespread prevalence of infectious disease, causes these countries to cut back on funding in health and education, the very thing that would function as a method to combat the spread of disease in the first place.

Perhaps the worst of it all, is the fact that these deadly diseases are widely preventable and curable. It is simply unacceptable that 2000 African children die from malaria each day, a disease that is easily curable (and preventable) — that’s one life every 45 seconds.

However hard we may try to push these facts out of our mind, it doesn’t make them any less existent. Now I’m not trying to guilt you into sending overseas donations, in fact, that’s not my point at all. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying donating to African charities isn’t worthwhile — it can’t hurt, but Africa’s underlying problem can’t be fixed from large-scale donations, all that succeeds in doing is creating a reliance on philanthropic gestures. Brendan Martin, author of New Leaf or Fig Leaf? The challenge of the New Washington Consensus, articulated this concept perfectly:

“It is all very well for Bill Gates to charitably donate $750m to pay for immunization programmes for certain diseases, as he recently announced he would do, and for James Wolfensohn to urge transnational companies setting up in poor countries to contribute financially directly to local education services. Societies which depend on such largess to meet their basic health and education needs are neither sustainable, democratic nor equitable—yet new dimensions of power are ceded to large companies.” — Brendan Martin, New Leaf or Fig Leaf? The challenge of the New Washington Consensus, Bretton Woods Project March 2000

Photo retrieved from: belindaotas.com

The African continent must restructure their health care initiatives from the fundamental level in order for them to become self-dependent. But of course, it’s a lot easier said than done. Who does Africa have to turn to for help in this restructuring? It’s easy to cast the blame on the pharmaceutical industry, but then you’d also have to blame capitalism — there’s simply no profit. Sure the market’s huge, but the money? Not so much. In fact, of the thousands of new medications drug companies have have introduced to the market in the last decade, fewer than 1% are for tropical diseases. In the struggle between unbridled altruism and capitalist profit, in the hands of Western pharmaceutical companies, the future of Africa’s struggles with disease-induced poverty looks pretty bleak.





2 thoughts on “Altruism vs. Capitalism: Obstacles in restructuring Africa’s health care system

  1. It’s things like this that really make you count your blessings. It seems like African countries are presented with a no-win scenario when it comes to developing: either they give up their sovereignty and accept another form of colonialism in foreign aid/corporate investment, or they try to do it on their own and become a pariah state, as doing it on their own usually involves protecting domestic industry with tariffs and subsidies.

    Like you said, the privatized healthcare systems in Africa heavily favor the rich, and the gap between rich and poor in many African countries is simply astounding. Luanda, Angola is the second most expensive city to live in, right behind Tokyo! (http://www.mercer.com/press-releases/cost-of-living-rankings#City_rankings) The wealthy in Luanda live like wealthy Americans, while the rest of Angolans are in dire poverty.

    Posted by lakeeffectblog | November 14, 2012, 12:43 pm
    • You’re exactly right, the whole damned if you do/damned if you don’t situation relative to governmental infrastructure is perpetuating such devastating effects on the people living in poverty. The socioeconomic gap is huge, but not surprising in that it’s consistent with most developing countries. Very sad though.

      Posted by Defining My Ethos | November 16, 2012, 1:14 am

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