Social determinants of health in the context of globalization and modernization

The phenomenon of globalization is as old as organized commerce. In its early days, the wealth generated by globalization was limited to a small elite community. But as modes of transport, communication and remote business organization advanced it has led to sustained living standard improvements in many industrial societies. This has happened to the extent that these days the word globalization has become synonymous with efficiency, economic opportunity and overall human security. While such developments are partially true there is also another side to the story. While the advanced nations of hemispheric West have had benign consequences as a result of globalization, key human development parameters of most Third World countries have fallen proportionately. Hence, it is difficult to present a blanket view of the impact of globalization on public health. In light of this fact, this essay will attempt to attain a nuanced understanding of globalization’s overall effect on public health outcomes across the world. This is done by way of perusing authentic scholarship on the subject.

The litmus test for the efficiency and effectiveness of any public health system is its performance in a crisis situation. Civil societies have come to expect basic protections at the time of these crises. Such emergencies also test a government’s true ability to act under pressure. In other words, “they define a state’s capacity to protect its population while exposing its vulnerabilities to political upheaval in the aftermath of poorly managed crises” (Gorin, 2002). In the context of economic globalization at the turn of the new millennium, more than ever before, the general public demand transparency and accountability in global public health systems during medical and natural disasters. To gauge the robustness of public health systems in this new globalization paradigm, we need to study recent cases of acute public health emergencies. The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 and Hurricane Katrina are particularly relevant to this analysis.

“Hurricane Katrina was unique in that the U.S. government accepted bilateral and multilateral relief aid, a rare event in modern times. In the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami, enough formal external resources prevented the public health emergency from developing into a secondary disaster. Rapid deployment of Red Cross Movement emergency response teams prevented any major outbreak of disease from contaminated water and sewage. It was no accident that, once the tsunami hit, a strong public health emphasis from national and international aid thwarted further deaths.” (Burkle, 2006)

Hence, in the instances of Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean tsunami the advantage of a globally coordinated public health arrangement comes forth. Further, as a result of globalization internal security, authority of the state and dispensation of public health have all become intertwined. A case in point was the SARS pandemic that broke a few years ago. Contrary to the successful response to the aforementioned natural disasters, the SARS pandemic “called into question the capacity of the public health infrastructure to meet such challenges, especially when public health is compromised by economic globalization pressures” (Burkle, 2006). This goes on to prove the initial assertion that the impact of globalization on public health can only be evaluated on a case by case basis. Generalizations are usually not accurate and at times very misleading. Further on the down side, there have been attendant trends to globalization, namely their indirect effect on social determinants of health in the Third World. To elaborate, public health systems have not scaled up to meet the challenges of increasing urbanization, which is a direct consequence of globalization. The processes of urbanization, industrialization and globalization have a direct impact on issues such as sustainable development and public health (Eisenberg, et. al, 2007).

Social determinants of health such as geographical location, gender, age, ethnic origin, education level, governance and socioeconomic status are all factors that determine a nation’s public health system. Statistics from World Health Report 2001 supports the veracity of this correlation. Developing nations continue to lag behind in standard of living parameters, which suggest that globalization has had no significant impact on social determinants of health in developing nations. Even as society enjoys technology aided interconnectivity, hundreds of thousands of people are still living under hostile health conditions (Taylor, 2002). While the rich nations are getting richer, complete swathes of sub-Saharan people still confront poverty, hunger, illiteracy and threat of infectious disease on a day to day basis. The biggest threat to people in this region is HIV/AIDS, an ailment that has consumes a million lives every six months in Africa, with sub-Saharan African nations bearing the brunt of this epidemic. This region, according to statistics released by Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, is home to seventy percent of people infected with HIV worldwide. Such numbers betray the socio-political realities of the region, with its attendant failure to invest in public health projects (Kazatchkine, 2007).

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